When does childhood end…

  • November 17, 2009
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…and when does adulthood begin?

• Nineteen-year-olds can drive tanks in Afghanistan, but they aren’t considered responsible enough to drive a rental car.
• Courts treat 13-year-olds as adults, yet they cannot rent adult DVDs.
• Executing convicts for offenses committed before age 18 is unconstitutional.
• In Judaism, a boy becomes a man (the bar mitzvah) at 13.

“For drinking, driving, fighting in the military, compulsory schooling, watching an R-rated movie, consenting to sex, getting married, having an abortion or even being responsible for your own finances, the dawn of adulthood in America is all over the place,” writes Catherine Rampell in an article in the New York Times called “How Old Is Old Enough?”


What makes the question so vexing is the fact that individuals mature at different rates. Laurence Steinberg, a national figure in juvenile justice, helped prepare a brief for the U.S. Supreme Court case arguing that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide.

Teens’ brains are not as developed as those of adults, he claims: “It may make them less mature than adults in a way that makes them less responsible for their behavior. It doesn’t make them not guilty, but it makes them less guilty.”

Those who have been traumatized are even less capable of making adult decisions. If a child is raised in a world characterized by threat, chaos, unpredictability, fear and trauma, according to the ChildTrauma Academy, the brain reflects that world. That child’s neural system becomes centered around stress and the fear response. In children, traumatic loss arrests development at the time and level of the experience.

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