“Children” Until 18?

Almost all cultures and civilisations have classified sub-adults under two heads, namely “child” and “adolescent” or their linguistic equivalents. In ordinary speech ours is, of course, one of these; but Western jurisprudence appears to be increasingly turning its back on the universal wisdom that a seventeen-year-old is not the same thing as a seven-year-old. For many purposes now, both domestic law and international convention are defining “child” as any person under 18 years of age. For some of these purposes, it makes perfect sense for the law to know only two categories, so that everyone is either an adult or else a child; for example, the franchise. For others, it either makes less sense or is misleading language; one example is the use of the “child” terminology in all matters of sexual abuse. It is sensible to erect legal protections against sexual exploitation of teenagers by older men, even when these teenagers are sexually active in their own peer-group; but using the word “child” gives the impression that an older man’s sexual attraction to a seventeen-year-old is “paedophilia”. That such an attraction ought not to be acted on is indubitable, but paedophilia it is not.

The whole movement to define a person as a “child” until its 18th birthday seems particularly odd when we consider that the age of criminal responsibility is so much lower, and not always binary. We have children, young offenders and adults, treated in three different ways not two. Why, then, does not the rest of the law operate with two categories covering the years from birth to franchise: namely “child” and “adolescent”, with different rights, duties and protections being assigned to both? Or at least with different cut-off ages between “child” and “adult” for different purposes, rather than standardisation of almost everything at eighteen?

There may be a connection here with what some people have seen as the state”s over-protective “infantilisation” of its own population; for instance, in some jurisdictions it is now impossible for teenagers to get summer jobs, for this is now “child labour” and therefore forbidden. Where adolescents were once encouraged to engage with the world of work, they are now prohibited; helping on the family farm is equated with enslavement to a carpet-maker. And then we are surprised when they can”t hold down their first job.

The UN campaigns against “child soldiers”, defined in terms of the 18th birthday. This fails to take into account when the cultures concerned think a person becomes an adult, and also gives the Western public the impression that what is being opposed is solely ten-year-old Africans being conscripted by loathsome warlords and toting rifles bigger than they are, like in the film Blood Diamond. In fact, the United Nations campaign is equally about denying anti-Western rebel movements access to manpower aged seventeen – the age at which many British and American boys joined up to fight Hitler and Tojo. To which I retort: if you’re old enough to be raped by government soldiers, you should be old enough to shoot back at them.

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  1. Written by James Beck
    on April 28, 2011 at 15:24

    In a plutocracy, where high profits depend on low wages, you will find policies that encourage the creation of a labor surplus. The inevitable social responses include labor unrest, unionization, and restriction of child labor.

    The politics of the latter take many forms. First, and most obvious, is a direct ban, though the swiss cheese of enforcement makes it a dubious tool; the enormity of the supply would require an army. It is far less expensive to infantilize the adolescents, i.e., convince them that they can’t, or shouldn’t, work. That process, too, takes many forms, and is reasonably effective for those young people who don’t need to work anyway.

    Rounding out the trifecta, the pernicious juvenile justice system hobbles the young and may even permanently restrict their ability to either supply their labor, or demand suitable wages. Two for the price of one.

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