The debate over legal adulthood is never-ending, clouded by widely varying laws and regulations that entrust young people with certain responsibilities and burdens at a young age—in most states, 10-year-olds may be tried as adults for murder, and 16-year-olds can drive or get married—while withholding others, such as drinking or renting a car, until the early or mid-20s.
“Practically from puberty, young people are bombarded with mixed signals about the scope of their rights and the depth of their responsibilities,” writes Alan Greenblatt for Governing. Greenblatt demonstrates that many of the laws governing young people’s behavior—which, by the way, have more than tripled since the 1950s—are based on arbitrary reasoning and dodgy social science. So while politicians and parents continue to argue over such “compass points” to adulthood as the drinking age or voting age (or, incredibly, the “sexting” age), Greenblatt looks to the one realm in which many states recognize that “growing up is a process, not a birthday”: the driving age.
“The driving age is more rooted in practical experience than the arbitrary conventions that define the drinking age and most other adult responsibilities,” he writes. That’s why most states have adopted “graduated driver licensing” (GDL), which grants a license (after the requisite classes, hours, and experience), but only on a probationary basis: For a number of months (or even a year), the new driver might not be allowed to drive with friends or at night.
Greenblatt suggests that such an approach could work in other policy areas, too. “A right such as drinking,” for example, “could be made more contingent on one’s ability to handle it responsibly and less a function of merely reaching a milestone age.” In any case, he argues, “it would be useful . . . for states to think more broadly when it comes to the age of responsibility. States have been acting in ever-more-punitive ways toward teens. Yet the point of laws regulating the behavior of young people should not be to restrict them. It’s to begin educating them in the ways of responsible adulthood. What’s important, after all, is not passing a test or meeting an arbitrary age requirement, but learning lessons and applying them to real life.”