In the United States, you cannot be tried as an adult under the age of 18, unless, of course, you commit an especially egregious crime, in which case they will put aside their qualms about how they treat children and try (and punish) you as an adult. In the U.S., you can generally drive at 16, see an R-rated movie at 17, go off to war at 18, and drink alcoholic beverages at 21. Our society contains a myriad of benchmarks in the transition to adulthood. These include traditions from a hodgepodge of cultures. You might be participate in Manjal Neerattu Vizha after your first menstruation, or in Dvija at about age 12, receive a Believer’s Baptism at age 12 or 13, be expected to observe Sharia at puberty, be confirmed or bar/batmitzvahed at 13, come of age in the Baha’i faith at 15, then enjoy your sweet 16 birthday. I don’t know what happens to you at 14; apparently, that’s your year off.
One thing that all of these practices and laws have in common is that they have no basis in a scientific understanding of the human brain. We now know that the last part of the brain to develop, the prefrontal cortex, does not reach maturity until age 25. The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher-order thinking, such as ethical and moral decision-making. If this part of the brain is not fully there until age 25, how can we hold an 18-year-old completely accountable for her or his actions?
Accountability should gradually increase as children gain the skills associated with the executive functions of their developing brains. Many of the rites of passage that we have inherited are based on sexual maturation. Children can begin to look like adults, and even act superficially like adults before they have completely formed adult brains. I propose that all laws regarding the age of majority be adjusted to reflect our current understanding of the human brain. Especially important are activities involving decisions that directly affect life and death, such as driving a car and participation in war.
“When I was a child, I reasoned as a child… when I reached the age of 25, I became an adult, and put childish ways behind me.”