The Legal Construction of Adolescence
American lawmakers have had relatively clear images of childhood and adulthood-images that fit with our conventional notions. Children are innocent beings, who are dependent, vulnerable, and incapable of making competent decisions. Several aspects of the legal regulation of childhood are based on this account. Children are assumed not to be accountable for their choices or for their behavior, an assumption that is reflected in legal policy toward their criminal conduct. They are also assumed to be unable to exercise the rights and privileges that adults enjoy, and thus are not permitted to vote, drive, or make their own medical decisions. Finally, children are assumed to need care, support, and education in order to develop into healthy productive adults. The obligation to provide the services critical to children's welfare rests first with parents and ultimately with the state. When children cross the line to legal adulthood, they are assumed to be autonomous persons who are responsible for their conduct, entitled as citizens to legal rights and privileges, and no longer entitled to support or special protections.
This picture is deceptively simple, of course. In fact, the legal regulation of children is extremely complex. Much of the complexity can be traced ultimately to a single source-defining the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Thus, the question, "What is a child?" is readily answered by policy makers, but the answer to the question, "When does childhood end?" is different in different policy contexts. This variation makes it very difficult to discern a coherent image of legal childhood. Youths who are in elementary school may be deemed adults for purposes of assigning criminal responsibility and punishment, while seniors in high school cannot vote and most college students are legally prohibited from drinking.1
Elizabeth S. Scott,
The Legal Construction of Adolescence,
Hofstra L. Rev.
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