Monday, May 31, 1999

Week of 05/31/1999

A Question Of Age
Just When Is An Adult An Adult?

- by David Matthews 2

Remember what your parents told you when you were a kid?

"Just wait until you turn 18, then you can make your own choices!"

Oh yes, the magical age 18!

At eighteen, you were an adult! You could make your own choices. You didn’t have to go to school if you didn’t want to. You could live where you wanted to, how you wanted to, and your parents couldn’t tell you what to do.

And as recent as twenty-five years ago, being 18 meant you could do it all! You could drink if you wanted to, drive if you wanted to, see an adult movie if you wanted to, smoke if you wanted to..

Of course, being an adult back then also had its pitfalls. Being an adult in the early years of the 70’s meant you could be drafted and forced to fight in a war you may or may not agree with. And being an adult also meant you were held responsible for your actions. Mommy and Daddy didn’t have to bail you out once you turned 18.

The last limit of adulthood was established in 1971 when the US Constitution was amended to fix the minimum voting age at 18. Not that many young adults at the time were eager to vote or have anything to do with the government. But that was out there nonetheless, and the very argument at the time for ratifying the 26th Amendment was that there were young adults who were 18 and could drink, have sex, go to prison, get drafted and fight on behalf of the country, but could not vote.

Oh, but those were much different times.. Back then there was a real emphasis on being an individual, being able to speak your mind and say what you want and to express yourself as you want to. Government didn’t like that, but back then the prevailing attitude was for government to go screw itself. Between opposition to Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, government wasn’t exactly looking too good.

The times have changed since then. Big government is still despised, but now it is no longer in vogue to tell government to go screw itself. Matter of fact, all too often it is government telling YOU to go screw yourself! Speak your mind, say what you want, unless what you have to say is politically incorrect. Express yourself, unless what you’re expressing offends someone else. Government is still embroiled in scandals, but now we’re being told that individuality is verboten, and we are told to embrace the collective.

It should be no surprise, then, that we also have a turnaround on defining what an adult is. Where once the trend was to make adulthood a one-stop level, now we’ve returned to a myriad of different age limits.

It all started with the moralists and drunk driving in the 80’s. The problem was simple - people weren’t being held responsible for driving under the influence. The law considered drunk driving a mental impairment, not an irresponsible behavior. The laws were lenient, judges were too lenient, prosecutors didn’t prosecute hard enough. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving argued pretty heavily for people to be more responsible, and to change the laws so drunk drivers who are caught are held responsible.

But then MADD went beyond just changing minds and making penalties tougher. The moralists realized that they could go after the other component of drunk driving - namely the alcohol. So they went after the most irresponsible of drinkers, namely the young adults.

Mind you, they never went so far as trying to OUTLAW alcohol. That’s been done before.. it was called the Volstead Act, otherwise known as Prohibition. It actually created more problems than it solved. No, the moralists wanted to simply raise the age when one would legally purchase alcohol.

Their rationality? Twofold. First, they argued that young adults cannot handle alcohol. They lack the maturity to deal with it in a "responsible" manner. Of course nobody ever inherits experience, they have to get it first-hand. But that’s a purely logical argument against a moralist’s emotional one. Second, there were many 18-year olds who could drink but were still in high school and had friends who are not 18. So even if the 18-year old was a "responsible" drinker, he was still guilty by association.

So legal adults between the ages of 18 and 21 were damned by the moralists as being too "irresponsible" to be able to drink. And when individual states didn’t move fast enough to raise the drinking age to suit the moralists, they used the federal government to force the issue. Uncle Sam’s Gods of Mount Morality sent the message out to every state that those that didn’t raise the drinking age would lose out on precious federal highway funds. Nothing like a little pork blackmail to motivate Uncle Sam’s fifty spoiled brats.

Once the temperance moralists realized they had a powerful weapon, so too did other moralists. Anti-sex moralists, frustrated by the mere existence of strip clubs, used the same arguments to try to raise the age of the women who danced at the clubs. Women who were 18 years of age could have sex, they claimed, but were too immature to decide whether or not to work in place that dealt with sex.

Quite recently Uncle Sam’s self-styled gods came up with the idea to raise the minimum age for legally purchasing a firearm. The Clinton Administration wants to raise the minimum age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 21, and this plan has the surprising support of many members of Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But while we’re pushing the freedoms of our youngsters further and further back, we’re placing responsibilities on them at an earlier and earlier age. Now we want to treat boys and girls as young as age 14 as adults.. if not younger.. and put them in adult prisons.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other. Having responsibility makes us appreciate the freedoms that come with it. It is the yin and yang of adulthood, and it is something that has been lost in all of these discussions.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that at age 18 you cannot mentally or emotionally handle alcohol, sex, or a gun.. fine. You pick the age that an adult IS developed enough to handle these things. How old? 21? 25? 30? You pick the age of adulthood.

But bear in mind all the things that come with that. We’ll have to amend the 26th Amendment so that adults will be able to vote. After all, we can’t have kids voting, now, can we? They aren’t mentally or emotionally developed enough to handle booze, what make you think they can handle a ballot box?

We’ll have to also change the age when our young people can enter into the military as well. Can’t have 18-year olds getting into the service if they can’t handle a firearm, right? Lord knows we might go to war or something, and then what will our young soldiers have to use to defend our country with? Bad jokes?

Oh, and parents, you will have to take care of your kids just that much longer. I hope you can handle it! Of course, we can always extend the school term to accommodate the extended period of time. It sounds like your kids will need all the extra school years they can.

You know, while we’re at it, maybe we should also change the driving age to match the new age of adulthood. I mean, if your youngsters cannot handle something as simple as alcohol, what make you think for a moment they can handle something as large and as complex as a automobile? Oh, sure, your kids will complain, but then again, they’re not mature enough to be adults, right?

I realize that a lot of these arguments will go in one ear and out the other. We’re just too fixated on the issue at the moment to worry about how it affects the big picture concerning adulthood. The big picture is simply this - the only way that young adults will learn responsibility is for them to learn it themselves. That means that sometimes they will make mistakes. Stupid mistakes. Sometimes even tragic mistakes. But sometimes that is the only way they will really learn that freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but that’s the real world. We just can’t coddle our youngsters into maturity and impart our knowledge to them by osmosis. That, too, is the price of being an adult.

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