When Do You Become an Adult?

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When Do You Become an Adult?

Find all our Student Opinion questions here.

Do you think there is a certain age when someone becomes an adult? How can you know what that age is?

What are the privileges associated with adulthood in your state or country? What are the responsibilities?

What about within your family? Are you expected to do certain “adult” things by a certain age?

In “When Are You Really an Adult?,” Maria Cramer writes about a Vermont senator, John Rodgers, who proposed a bill to outlaw cellphone use by anyone under 21 to make a point about a Vermont law that banned the sale of firearms to most people under that same age:

“There are all these pushes around some parts of the country for 16-year-olds to vote but we’re saying they’re not mature enough to smoke or purchase a gun. So which is it?” said Mr. Rodgers. “When are you really an adult?”

It is a question that has possessed both poets and lawmakers.

But there is not much clarity in state laws. In Alaska, teenagers as young as 14 can get married with a court order. Only a handful of states allow drinking under 21 and that is under strict circumstances, like when a parent or legal guardian is present.

Eighteen-year-old adults can run for office, go to strip clubs, be sentenced to life in prison, and volunteer to go to war or be drafted, but as of last December, they cannot vape or smoke tobacco products.

And since 1984, when states began raising the legal age of drinking to 21 from 18 in exchange for federal highway funds — in some cases barely a decade after lowering it — they have not been able to buy a beer at a bar in most of the United States, a restriction that has infuriated college students ever since.

“If 18-year-olds are burdened with the responsibility of adulthood, they should be afforded some of its privileges,” said Charlotte Lawson, a 21-year-old fourth-year student at the University of Virginia who wrote an opinion piece in the campus paper in 2018 calling for the drinking age to be lowered from 21.

“It’s interesting these are people who work full-time jobs, pay their own rent, pay taxes and are eligible to vote,” she said. “Yet none of this constitutes adequate proof that a person is responsible enough to drink.”

The article looks at the history of the changing drinking age throughout the 20th century:

After the end of Prohibition in 1933, most states set the drinking age at 21, which was also the minimum voting age at the time.

Lawmakers reasoned that if you were old enough to vote, you were old enough to drink, Mr. Parent said.

That philosophy continued in 1971, when Congress lowered the voting age to 18 in response to fury over the draft during the Vietnam War, which conscripted thousands of men between 18 and 21 into war.

States, in turn, lowered the drinking age to 18, Mr. Parent said.

But in 1984, President Ronald Reagan began pushing hard for states to raise their drinking age, citing what he called a “great national problem” of drinking and driving by teenagers.

In July of that year, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states to raise the age of drinking to 21 or risk a 10 percent cut in their federal highway funds.

Scientists are also trying to answer this question by looking at brain development:

The scientific consensus that most brains do not fully develop until age 25 has led to a host of reforms in the criminal justice system and reexaminations about how society should punish young adults.

But it has also fed the confusion over what young adults should be allowed to do when scientists know that they use less restraint and discipline than older people, said Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University and founder of the school’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic.

“We’re constantly trying to balance the rights to protection and the rights to participation,” said Ms. Binford. “We are a society that loves its liberty, but we’re also a society that recognizes that children are unique and special and deserving of protection.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you feel that you are an adult now? Why or why not? How will you know when you have reached adulthood? Do you think adulthood is connected to being a certain age or having specific responsibilities? Are there legal rights, like voting or drinking, that you think will help you demonstrate your own transition into adulthood?

  • What do you think should be the legal minimum age for doing the following “adult” activities: getting married, voting, enlisting in the military, buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, owning a firearm, being tried as an adult in court? Do you think minimum age requirements are necessary to protect young people from adult risks and responsibilities?

  • Who do you think should be responsible for setting these age requirements? What do you think should inform or determine those decisions? Should it be brain development, educational achievements, maturity or something else?

  • Benming Zhang, who was elected to the City Council in Williamsburg, Va., during his final undergraduate year in college, said he faced the most skepticism about his campaign from his peers. Why do you think that was? Would you trust one of your peers if he or she was running for a political office now? How about in five years? Do you think there are certain experiences or qualifications that someone needs to be in a role of political leadership?

  • How do you feel about the voting age in the United States? Do you think that you, or your peers, would be more active politically if you were able to vote? How do you think the voting age should be determined?


Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.