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  • John Shrawder

Should We Expand the Freedom of People Age 14 to 18?

As discussed above, autonomy and freedom to make personal decisions leads to happiness and paternalism and limitations on decision making leads to greater unhappiness. In the World Happiness Report, Americans score lower on perceived freedom than on any other driver of happiness. Advanced industrial societies like the United States have lower scores on freedom than most Asian countries. How can freedom be expanded in the United States?

Much of this section is based on Psychologist’s Robert Epstein 2010 book Teen 2.0. Epstein believes that the freedom of teens has been increasingly limited over the past 100 years. In the United States people in their teens have been treated like infants. Surveys show that Americans do not see people achieving full adulthood until age 26. Increasing freedom for teens and younger people could improve overall happiness.


Common restrictions for teens include being subject to a curfew, forcing someone to undergo medical treatments and take medications, restricting television use, restricting how someone dresses, searching someone’s personal possessions, and requiring someone to eat or sleep at a certain time. Epstein administered tests to measure restrictions of freedom on Americans over age 18, military personnel, prisoners, and teens. He found that persons over 18 typically have 2.3 of 42 restrictions on their behavior; military personnel had 10.9 restrictions; prisoners 14.6 restrictions and teens had an average 26 restrictions. Some teens had up to 40 restrictions. This should be expected to make teens less happy.


We can all recognize that adults should make paternalistic decisions to protect very young children. However, the decision making capacity of younger people is being trusted less over time. Should teens be trusted more? At what age should people be trusted as autonomous decision makers?


Most advanced countries today set age 18 as the legal age to trust people to make most important decisions for themselves. What is the basis for determining that age? Do 18 year olds have adequate critical thinking skills? Should people be allowed to make decisions at a younger age? Should people be required to be older to make decisions? What role should persons between age 14 and 30 have in decisions made on their own behalf? What should be the role of schools in decision making for people age 14 and 30?


History of Adolescence. Epstein feels that adolescence was invented in the early 1900s and laws and artificial social conventions have kept teens from making important contributions to society. Adolescence was not a term in English language until the 20th century and it does not exist in many foreign countries. Benjamin Franklin and others from the past were making autonomous decisions at age 13; today many people are dependent on living in their parents’ homes even after age 25. The only way for a person under age 18 to be treated as an adult today is to have a child or commit a serious crime.


He feels that adolescence was invented in the 19th Century. The first laws to protect children were passed in 1875. Reformer Jane Adams believed that teens are helpless. Her social action would lead to restrictions on labor for teens and for the design of a separate juvenile justice system. G Stanley Hall wrote a book in 1904 defining adolescence for the first time. It defined youth as a period of “storm and stress”. It would be based on a flawed interpretation of the theory of evolution. Because of the great amount of immigration, leaders of upper classes sought to impose moral standards on working class youth


In the 20th century, media and commercial organizations began developing youth products showing teens as being naturally stupid, shallow, and emotionally unstable. Labor unions supported laws to suppress employment for youth and preserve high wages. Of course, all this is supposed to change immediately when a person turns age 18.


Isolation of teens from persons over age 18. Teens in preindustrial society spend 5 hours in total each week with other teens. They slowly learn how to function and compete against persons over age 18.


American teens spend about 35 hours per week with other teens in school and 35 hours a week with other teens outside school or a total of 70 hours a week. More than a half of American teens spend less than 30 minutes a week with their father and most of this time is watching television


This keeps youth separate from the real world of adult responsibilities. They are not challenged to compete with adults. It also ignores the capabilities many people have to achieve things at a young age today if challenged. The following are examples cited by Epstein.

  • In 1950, The Dalai Lama assumed full political power over Tibet at age 15

  • Leon Botstein became Bard College President age 23

  • Kathleen Holtz earned her law degree at age 17

  • David Farragut entered the US Navy at age 9 and commanded his first ship at age 12

  • In the 1980s 20,000 boys age 3 to 12 fled the military in Sudan and crossed two countries to arrive in Kenya

  • Johnny and Luther Htoo led a revolt against military rule in Myanmar in 2003 at age 12

  • Pankaj Arora of Rochester Minnesota started his first software company at age 14

Competence to make adult decisions. Philosophers have proposed several things that could be tested to determine if a person of any age is capable of making good autonomous decisions.

  • Coherence - A person is capable of autonomy if they have major well-formed long term plans and desires and acts in a day to day in a way that is coherent with these desires. The forms of these desires is irrelevant. A person whose important actions are dominated by their moment to moment mental state cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. A drug addict would be an example of this.

  • Reason-Response – A person is capable of autonomy if they can avoid impulsive actions. He or she can develop sound reasons for their actions based on values and facts and deemphasize less important facts and values. They are open to criticism of their reasoning. They can change their mind for good reasons. They are aware of methods used to deceive and manipulate them.

Epstein developed a test for adultness and administered the tests to people from age 14 to age 71. Most of the people over age 18 were college graduates. Overall persons over 18 scored about 2.1% higher than persons age 14 to 18. Among fourteen areas of adultness, persons over 18 outscored teens in only five categories. About 30% of teens scored higher than the average person above age 18.


Age 18 has been set arbitrarily. People acquire competence at different ages. Some persons can make effective autonomous decisions at age 18; some are capable earlier and some are incapable of making decisions until much later if at all. In an Ideal world, everyone would receive a test that would determine which decisions a person is capable of making. Until they pass the test, a parent or guardian would make decisions.

Epstein argues that autonomy should be based on competence not age. Persons should be considered to have the right to a wide amount of decisions on passing competency tests in various areas. This would be true whether a person is age 14 or age 21.


Epstein’s proposals are far from being implemented but some groups are working for them.

Even under current conditions, some people under 18 must make important decisions. According to the Dropout Prevention Center, about 20% of persons who drop out of high school support a family, about 15% to care for a family member, and over 20% because of a job.


I believe high schools should teach decision making to people age 14 to 18 and should expose them to important decisions for the following reasons.

  • To prepare them for the important decisions they must make after age 18 and to enjoy the freedom of making their own decisions

  • So they can review decisions being made on their behalf by parents or guardians

  • Because some people age 14 to 18 must make important autonomous decisions today

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