Age 16: marriage or the Army, but no buying alcohol

I really do not want 10-year-olds driving cars, or 12-year-olds abandoning education to be married. But the present situation is ridiculous
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The Independent Online
This week my son has taken, if not a massive stride, at least a large lurch towards adulthood: he's had his 16th birthday.

We're not talking about biology here - we've dealt with that more or less: shaving and voice-breaking and hormones and spots (not too many) and getting drunk the first time (with his grandmother, I might add). He's still growing taller, but apart from that the sociobiologists would call him a grown-up already.

So, too, would most societies, through most of history. Rites of passage for young males traditionally take place roughly in tune with their biological clocks; the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, designed to mark the moment when a boy becomes an adult man, for example, happens around his 13th birthday.

Until this century, children, except the offspring of the privileged, were contributing financially to the family long before they were my son's age, and they shouldered a burden of responsibility far greater than anything he will be asked to take on. While there is a great deal of debate about how much housework adult men do in the contemporary home, there is none about what sort of domestic contribution children should be making.

As a modern culture, we seem to take pride in extending the period of childhood. We both protect young people and exclude them from full citizenship for an increasing number of years. We do not ask them to "put aside childish things" even when at the physical level they are more than able to do so. We have divided biological maturity from social adulthood.

I am uncertain as to whether that is a good thing or not, but I am sure that we have not looked at all this properly. The extension of childhood has happened piecemeal over a long period of time, and there is now no coherence or even sense in the system.

Chatting with my son over the last week, I have come to realise just how confused and confusing the whole situation is in Britain now. From this week he has certain new, and real, freedoms. He may abandon education (although if he chooses to carry on, it will cost him, or me, nothing for another two years, and while he does continue I can claim Child Benefit for maintaining him). He may get married - in England he would need my consent, but in Scotland he would not. He may leave home (and with this I get a new right, too - I can throw him out.)

The basic contract between state, parent and child has radically changed; my son's and my involvement with each other becomes voluntary from here - except in assessing whether or not he'll have to pay for his tertiary education. He may join the Army, give consent to medical treatment, and buy tobacco or a lottery ticket. He may ride a motor bike, provided it is a very small one (50cc, which in effect means a moped). He can have sex, so long as it is with someone of the opposite gender.

These may seem substantial gains. On the other hand, there is a long list of things he may still not do - being, in the eyes of the law, too young.

But next year he will add to his collection of adult privileges. At 17, he will be allowed to ride a bigger motor bike, though not any longer drive a car - the age for this is being raised to 18 at the beginning of next year, so he will be in the first group of 17-year-olds to lose this right. (Thank God, thinks Mummy, who not only wants to hang on to her unique use of her vehicle, but is also too horribly aware of the dangers (though aren't motor bikes even more dangerous?)

He will be able to buy air-gun pellets; though by a peculiar quirk of the law he would require a gun licence to buy shotgun cartridges or rifle bullets - and there is no legal minimum age for him to have one of those, if he could persuade the local police of his suitability.

However, he will have to wait two years until he is fully adult. Until then, he may not buy alcohol, although he can consume it in a public place if someone else does the purchasing. He may not drive a car. He may not enter into a credit agreement, be a signatory to a will, be treated as an adult in relation to benefit claims, or have a homosexual relationship. And, of course, he will not be able to vote, even though, if he is earning, he will be treated as an adult in relation to taxation.

Perhaps it is wise to stagger the entry of the young into the world of adulthood, rather than offer them a single and dramatic ritual passage at the very point when their hormones are raging and their stability is questionable. But one does not get the sense that this lurching - and distinctly odd - programme of rights and responsibilities was ever a thought- out policy or decision. It is, rather, a random and ill-considered consequence of many different considerations.

In each separate case, most people would want there to be some minimum age. I really do not want 10-year-olds driving cars, or 12-year-olds abandoning education to get married. At the same time, the list is obviously arbitrary, ridiculous and unhelpful.

The Government has promised to reintroduce a Bill for an equal age of sexual consent. Perhaps while they are about it they could look at this whole issue in broader terms, bearing in mind that we do have taxation without representation, that we are prepared to ask young people to die in wars that they have no role in choosing, and that we will let someone get married whom we do not judge capable of buying a drink.

Luckily, my son does not want to get married; he says he "wouldn't be seen dead on a moped"; he's got no plans to leave home and no desire whatsoever to quit school. Sixteen "feels pretty much like 15", he says. Then he adds: "Look, use the article to say that I think the most important one of these things is equal age for sex for gays. It's unfair, it's wrong and it's stupid." It's his birthday, so I'll let him have the last word.