1.1 At what age is it legal?
The issue of mental capacity in children is complex. There is a natural and entirely appropriate acceptance in society that children have a different and usually more limited capacity to make safe and reliable decisions for themselves and others compared to adults. Their ability to make decisions depends on both their chronological age and level of development. Parents and carers therefore become used to making decisions on behalf of children.
The question of when a child’s mental capacity is presumed and decision making handed over, and for which decisions, lies at the heart of the parenting relationship. Some decisions are interpreted differently in different cultures and different families, and can change through the generations. The age for some thresholds, however, is formally defined in law.
For example, the age of criminal responsibility – the age at which someone can be charged with a criminal offence and brought before a court – is a significant threshold. It is the age at which a child is considered to have sufficient maturity and mental capacity to know the difference between right and wrong in relation to criminal behaviour and thus to be legally accountable for their own actions. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland this age is set at 10 years. In Scotland it is 8 years, although the age at which a child can be prosecuted is 12. The United States and Mexico set their age of criminal responsibility at 6 years, Ireland 12 years, Italy 14 years, Portugal 16 years, and Argentina and Peru 18 years (NationMaster, 2014).
The assumptions that lie behind such legal thresholds are complicated and embedded in the history of each country’s social legislation. However, in some way the age of criminal responsibility reflects each country’s interpretation of the balance between welfare and justice. Societies in which children are seen as vulnerable and deserving of welfare even through the latter stages of childhood tend to have a relatively high threshold of criminal responsibility, as in Argentina and Peru. On the other hand, societies in which the emphasis is on protection and justice and where it is felt that even relatively young children should explicitly learn lessons of social responsibility tend to set the threshold for criminal responsibility earlier.
Many other age-related decisions have far less serious consequences than being charged with a criminal offence. These include transitions in education, viewing particular films, taking on a part-time job, buying alcohol, getting married, buying a pet and making a will. All of these have legal age limits, whereby a child is not formally deemed to have capacity until a particular age, even though the child and/or their parents and carers may not necessarily agree.
Do you know from what age children can get a job, babysit, sign a passport themselves or take part in an acrobatics performance? In the next activity you can find out.
Activity 1 At what age can I …?
This short quiz will raise your awareness of how certain behaviours become linked to certain ages. The quiz is really for fun, just to start you thinking about some of the issues.
The correct answer is c.
The correct answer is b.
Certain activities are regulated by law and are only ‘allowed’ once a young person is a certain chronological age. On the other hand, society may have mechanisms to help young people gain the autonomy and responsibility they need beyond the legal age; for example, for young people leaving care. This is recognised, for example, for young people leaving local authority care, where technically the leaving care age is 18, but legislation allows for and in some instances requires local authorities to provide support beyond that age.