The Case for Adulthood

When does one become an adult? Is is 16, when you can drive? Is is 18, when you can vote? Is it 21, when you can buy alcohol? Is it 35 when you can run for the office of President? Most people in our society would pick either 18 or 21. 18 is the age of majority in most states. At that age, you can marry whom you want, vote, join the military, enter legally-binding contracts, and are not legally under the authority of your parents.

It might surprise you to find out that this has not always been the case in our country, and isn't the case in many societies even today. In fact, the idea of a “teenager” (at least with today's connotations) only came into being in the 1900s. Starting in the late 19th century, society gradually extended “childhood” to the point where we now find it. Prior to 1900 it was not unheard of for people to get married at 14 or 15 and start a family1 – often on their own out on the frontier. Certainly, they began a career after an elementary education. George Washington was working full-time as a surveyor, and on his own, at age 15. John Quincy Adams served as a secretary to Francis Dana on a mission to Russia, at age 14. Nor was this limited to marriage and vocation. Other adult activities were part of the early-teenage experience. For instance, when a sheriff formed a posse (the posse comitatus), common law made every able-bodied male over age 15 eligible to participate2.

The Jewish bar Mitzvah traditionally marked the “coming of age” for boys at age 13, and their eligibility for marriage3. At that point, they were treated as men instead of children. In many third-world societies, such as remote tribal peoples, there is still the equivalent to this practice at roughly the same age. Go back more than 100 years and this was the universal view4.

So what changed? I believe that there were several factors that exerted pressure for society to extend childhood beyond age 13. The most potent was likely the extension of mandatory education to age 16 or 18. Note that a High School education is a good idea in our society. Mandating it for everyone is probably a good idea as well. However, it is hard to mandate education for adults. It is much easier to mandate it for children, who have fewer freedoms. Also, marrying and having to support a family would interfere with this education, so it is much easier to raise the legal age of marriage, without parental consent, to 18 or so.

A second factor had to do with the Progressive movement, which (coincidentally) came into play in America in the late 1800s. It become fashionable to think that younger adults were simply not mature enough to be treated as adults. The government began to enact laws which slowly, but surely, stripped away the rights of adults from anyone under 18.

In the latter half of the 20th century, some backtracking was done on this process as 18 year-olds were given the right to vote in 1971 (which had been fixed at 21 in 1868)5. The Progressives of today often advocate giving more rights to minors. However, this is not a move toward a more traditional view of adulthood. Rather, they want to keep considering 13-17 year-olds as children, who have no responsibilities, but yet are given the privileges of adults. In fact, in general they seem to push for fewer responsibilities and a child-like dependence upon the government for everyone, regardless of age.

Other vestiges of the traditional viewpoint still persist in certain places. For instance, the “young adult” label applied to books for teenagers comes from the earlier time period and declares that they are, indeed, “adults”. Another is the movie rating PG-13, which makes a distinction at age 13. Many laws apply differently to 13-years and under-13 years of age, such as COPPA (the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act). Implied in the name and contents is that 13-year olds are not children.

So looking at history, we see adulthood universally starting at age 13 with the last 150 years moving adulthood to 18 in the industrialized West. Some would argue that this is progress. But is it? I see consequences to this practice. First, by treating persons who are adults (by reason of biology) as children, we cause unnecessary resentment which can lead to rebellion because, deep down, they realize that they are adults. As John Stonestreet6 says, “I think there is something of the image deo in these students that screams in rebellion against the low expectations they face everywhere”7. Second, because society and laws place little expectation of responsible behavior on 13-17 year-olds, many of them live down to that expectation. Third, the greater difference in age between the parents and their children contributes to the “generation gap”. Fourth, society loses an incalculable amount of productivity from the 5 years when young adults should be expected to contribute to society instead of playing around like irresponsible children8.

A prime example of where the young adult is encouraged not to be active is the church youth group. I don't want to denigrate the hard work, pure hearts, or good intentions of youth leaders in churches. And certainly, not all church youth groups operate this way. Nevertheless, most of what I see in church youth groups is a place to hang out with friends and go on fun outings. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this, except that I often see it pushing aside service in the church. As a result, the young adult is robbed of the blessings of being about the Lord's work, and is not being given the perspective of his or her personal responsibility to be involved. It is no surprise that when they are older, so many of these adults do little more in their churches than attend Sunday morning services, if they attend at all. I wonder how many of the young people who leave the church and never come back do so because, as young adults, they were merely entertained. If you are seeking meaning, and what you are getting is entertainment, why wouldn't you leave?

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if the church began to treat teenagers as adults. Word would soon get out, and many young adults in this age range would come to the church because it would be the one place they would be afforded the respect due to them. This is the age when they begin to search for some meaning for their life, which is also met by God through His church. If it were known that they could go to the church to find meaning and respect, we couldn't keep them out if we wanted. As it is, for this age range, church is simply a venue for entertainment - and one that cannot match the entertainment that the world provides.

Let us take a look at another witness to adulthood. The biological sciences, born at a time before adulthood was moved to 18, define a “juvenile” as a plant or animal that cannot yet reproduce. Once the plant or animal can reproduce, it is called an “adult”. When can humans reproduce? On average, at age 13. I do not believe that humans are evolved animals, but those who have this viewpoint cannot seem to acknowledge that humans become adults at the point that they can reproduce. But there is more. Not only are teens capable of reproduction, but females in this age group are most capable of quick recovery from the rigors of childbirth, and men's fertility peaks in their late teens9. After that, men's fertility begins a long slow decline. Biologically speaking, the teenage years are the ideal time for marriage and child-bearing.

The third witness is the Bible. God created humans. He created them to reach puberty and be capable of reproduction at some point in their lifespan. It is only logical to conclude that He would only have done so if He knew that humans of that age were capable of getting married and raising families. Since most people would agree that such activities fall solely within the realm of the adult, we can conclude that God intended for humans to be adults when they reach puberty, which is roughly age 13. One could argue that we should therefore consider someone an adult when they reach puberty, regardless of their age. But for the sake of convenience, choosing the average age of puberty seems a reasonable thing to do.

So we have three witnesses to adulthood starting at age 13: history, biology, and Biblical theology.

Even with these arguments, however, there are those who cannot bring themselves to accept the premise of adulthood starting at 13. There are numerous possible reasons for this. Perhaps they are so steeped in the viewpoint of the last 100 years that they simply cannot bring themselves to change their minds. Perhaps they see the immature behavior of young adults and conclude that they are incapable of acting like adults. This is fallacious thinking, since people will generally live up (or down) to what is expected of them. If society expected them to act like adults, most of them would. And reaching age 18 (or 21, or even 45) is by no means a guarantee of adult behavior. Should we extend childhood even later due to 45-year-olds who act childish? Another argument is that most men's bodies do not stop growing until their early 20's. Paul refers to this as reaching the “full stature of manhood”. But it doesn't mean that you aren't an adult until you stop growing. After all, women stop growing when they reach puberty, and they are still considered “children”. Another possible factor is that many parents have trouble “letting go” of their children. They know they will have to eventually do it, but some dread it. In these cases, it may be easier to procrastinate as long as possible before that day happens. Another reason I've heard is that it is necessary to extend childhood to 18 for the sake of schooling since it would be nearly impossible if the person were working to support a family. But being an adult does not require one to get married, and being married doesn't require one to start a family immediately, or at all. A properly raised person will recognize the importance of schooling and the benefits of waiting until later to marry, without being forced to do so by law. And someone who isn't serious about school probably shouldn't be in school disrupting the learning of those who are. Nor does being married require one to move out on their own. Prior to World War I, most people couldn't afford to live on their own when they were starting a family. Hence, extended families lived together. This provided not only mutual financial support, but also allowed the older adults to mentor the younger adults in issues of married life and raising of children.

In any case, the point is that adulthood starts at age 13. That does not mean that I think 13 year-olds should be thrown out of the house to make their own way in the world. I recommend that men wait until their late twenties before getting married. I heartily recommend that everyone complete a basic education and graduate from high school. And I do not suggest that anyone start a family unless they have the means to support it, regardless of their age10.

In past centuries the young man would be sent off to learn a trade as an apprentice. And while they were learning a trade, they were learning to be independent adults. In a similar manner, I would suggest that the ages 13-17 be used to train the new adult. In the past, one could learn how to be an adult by society at-large as well as one's parents. In today's decadent society, it will take the dedicated teaching of someone who knows what it means to be an adult. So, as I view it, childhood should be a time of learning the basics, learning responsibility, and gradual independence. By the time a child reaches 12, they've pretty much formed into the person they will be and further attempts to mold them in the same way as a child is molded will result in rebellion. From 13 to 17 they are an adult-in-training. Certainly by age 15, they out to be capable of living independent lives, although it would be best if they finish high school. The support of the parents allows them to concentrate on their schooling – and parents ought to do what they can to prepare the next generation.

Why consider a 13-year-old to be an adult if we are going to recommend that they stay in school and not marry until later in life? How about simply because they are adults? How about because people (of any age) will tend to live up/down to your expectations? Give them an expectation of adult behavior to live up to. And I already listed some of the problems with extended childhood that would be nice to avoid altogether.

Further Reading

Prior to the 19th century there was no concept of "child". Before age 7 you are an infant. After that, you are an adult. The modern concept of "child" is a cultural artifact of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because we expect people of this age to act as children, they do.
Note: I've only read an abstract of the book, so I can't speak with any authority on what he says, but my research into this area seems to (at least somewhat) validate his idea so far as it is only applied to Catholic Europe.
"Centuries Of Childhood", 1962, By Philippe Aries.

The word "teenager" wasn't really used until 1941. Prior to the last 20th century Western culture, kids became adults. Now they become "teenagers" or "adolescents".
"The Death Of The Grownup: How America's Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization", 2007 by Diane West.

Colonial Virginia fixed adulthood at 21. Marriage with consent of father at 12.

Age of consent in 1275 England was 12 for women. Some German and Italian states did the same in 16th century.
Age of consent in French Napoleonic code in 1791 was 11. In 1863 it was increased to 13 for both boys and girls. Portugal, Spain, Denmark, and Swiss cantons set age of consent at 10-12 and then raised is to 13-16 in the second half of the 19th century. In 1875, England raised the age to 13. In the US at this time, it varied by state and ranged from 10-12 (for girls). Britian raised the age of consent to 16 in 1885. By 1920 both UK and US laws moved the age to 16-18.
Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, (accessed January 26, 2010).

In 18th century French-speaking Canada, adulthood was defined as 25 (following French law), but people could marry as early as 12 or 15 with parental consent.

First juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. Note: unclear as to the age of "juveniles".

In 1801 a 16-year-old could be a midshipsman in the British Navy, but under the age of 19, the sailors were considered "boys" and given less severe punishments - except in the case of a court marshall. Prior to 1794, boys as young as 10 could serve in the navy. In 1794 it was increased to age 13. In 1847 the age was raised to 15 and the 19-year-olds were signed on as men.

In 18th century France, girls wore adult woman clothing starting at age 12 or 13.,b.htm

In the 19th century colonies, girls wore children's gowns until they were 12-14.

Women among the elite classes of the Medieval period generally married at puberty, or even earlier. Full social adulthood was accorded thereafter depending upon numerous factors.
Journal of Women's History

Over age 14 one was considered an adult, in legal terms, in early America.
"17th Century Perceptions Of Youth"

Those reaching puberty (legally 12 for women, 14 for boys) could legally marry in Canada, prior to the 19th century. Men typically joined the militia at 16. In New France, a person became a "functional" adult at about age 20. In the 1920s, social reformers pushed for labor laws specifically to force children into the public school system.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, "Childhood, History of" by Neil Sutherland

By 1929 children under 14 had been legally excluded from factory and mine employment in most provinces.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, "Child Labour" by Jean Barman, revised by Anne-Marie Pedersen

Apprenticeship in London began at about age 14 in the 14th century, and increased to 18 in the 15th century. In the 1700s, children under the age of 15 worked as domestic servants.
14-year olds were required to pay a poll tax in the Middle ages.
50% of British girls and 1/3 of boys aged 5-9 worked full-time (15+ hours per day) in 1861.
Note: I could find no citations on this site. However, the statements are in agreement with what my research had found in other places.
"Children in European and American History"


1 In earlier centuries it was common for women to marry between 12 and 14. However, unmarried women were usually only allowed to marry with the approval of their father.

2 Notes to Federalist paper 29, by Charles R. Kesler, 1999

3 The bat Mitzvah marked the same for girls at age 12

4 I am not a bona fide historian, but I did some research. The first thing I discovered was that historians do not agree with each other on nearly any subject. The second thing I discovered was that finding solid information on this topic was unusually difficult. But synthesizing everything that I found, going with the strongest arguments, and generally sticking to the consensus view in cases of disagreement, the historical view I present seems sound to me. When I say “universal” view, you should realize there are claims of some variations in various places and at various times. In these cases, I'd say that the exceptions seem to prove the rule.

5 The 26th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, respectively

6 Executive Director of Summit Ministries

7 Mission Frontiers, Sep-Oct 2009, “Helping Students 'Get It'”, Page 41. Note that his comments were in regard to college students, but I believe they are applicable to even younger adults. Comments he made other places make me inclined to think that he believes likewise.

8 I'm not suggesting they work in sweat-shops, or to work at all, in an employer/employee sense. Rather they can get involved in their community. Many responsible parents make sure this happens, but it would be more prevalent if society expected it of them.

9 “Men's Sexual Function, Andropause and Testosterone”, Masters Men's Clinic,

10 In fact, in the 19th century, most men married in their early twenties despite being able to marry earlier. This was largely due to the fact that many could not afford to raise a family until they were older.