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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The confusing matter of when we are deemed to have grown up

The confusing matter of when we are deemed to have grown up

A few days after the admissions process, I saw an unexpected email from my daughter’s college administration

Photo: HTPremium
Photo: HT

A few days after the admissions process, I saw an unexpected email from my daughter’s college administration. On clicking it open, I was relieved to see that it was only an automated message informing me that she had 100% attendance that day. I don’t think my adult daughter’s attendance is my business. But I still get a daily email, and at the end of every term, even her marks sheet is addressed to me.

One of our recent interns told me that she had to get her parent’s permission every time she wanted to step out of her campus. The college was more than 2,000km away from where her parents lived. But this was not a problem at all. The students had a gate pass app on their smartphones that would send a request to their parents’ smartphones, whose approval would be relayed to the security guards’ smartphones, and the gate would open (or remain closed, depending on what kind of parent you had). It did not matter that she was a smart, adult law student—without Mom’s permission, she couldn’t leave the campus.

As a parent, I am of course concerned about the safety of my children. But I am unable to fathom how an adult who can legally sign a contract, take a loan, have sex, get married, drive a truck, fly a plane, fight a war and vote in elections cannot leave the college campus without parental permission.

A few years ago, I recall being surprised when parents turned up for the orientation lecture of my public policy class at a city college—of a Master’s programme. Quite a number of private colleges have uniforms for undergraduate students and some state governments have begun to emulate the idea. India is infantilizing its young middle class adults.

So, when do Indians grow up? The official age of maturity is 18, like it is in a majority of countries around the world. Now, there’s nothing magical (in a non-romantic sense) about 18, and most of us over that age know that there’s no switch that turns on on your birthday that suddenly makes you more rational and mature. As psychologists Laurence Steinberg and his colleagues conclude in a study on adolescents and maturity, “The assumption... that a single line can be drawn between adolescence and adulthood for different purposes under the law is at odds with developmental science. Psychological maturity is asynchronous across different domains of functioning, especially during periods of dramatic and rapid change, as is the case during adolescence."

That said, law needs a convenient heuristic for adulthood and 18 has become more-or-less a global norm, and I think it’s a reasonable one. Psychology suggests there are sometimes grounds to depart from this norm. But the departures have to be reasonable and logically consistent.

Moral panic and political populism in the past decade led us to treat 16-18-year-olds as adults in serious criminal cases. Yet, no such flexibility extends to civil matters. Justice Sanjay Kumar of the Punjab and Haryana High Court noted, “A criminal act by a child of or over 16 years of age is now being treated on par with that of an adult, but a similar analogy has not been extended to a civil act of a child of the same age." A civil matter of particular concern is the one concerning romantic relationships and choice of spouse. Further, the age of consent was been raised to 18 in 2013. The Chief Justice of India himself expressed concern over the criminalization of teenagers who find themselves guilty of statutory rape for having ‘consensual’ sex with under-18s.

Then there is the legal age for marriage, which was different for men and women till last spring. Social revolutionary objectives had led us to this inequality. Last year a bill was introduced in Parliament to raise the minimum age for women also to 21. This will mean that Indian citizens above 18 can do all adult things like sign contracts, vote, have sex and engage in live-in relationships except get married or, in some states, have a drink. Further, to the extent that the legal age for marriage is justified on one’s maturity to make a life-changing decision, the absence of any legal age for religious ordination throws the entire reasoning into question. You can enter lifelong monkhood or nunhood even as a toddler, but have to wait till 21 to enter matrimony.

Different states in India have different minimum legal drinking ages: 18, 21, 25 and infinity. Empirical evidence suggests that 21 has better social outcomes, but drinking-age laws strike another blow at 18 being the age of maturity. Banning liquor sales to under-21s while decriminalizing possession and consumption would better balance adult agency and social good.

An energetic nation with a young population will not achieve its potential by patronizing and coddling its adults. P. Anitha and A. Umesh Samuel Jebaseelan have shown that “excessive control, over protectiveness and strict punishment to the adolescent by the family prevents development of social maturity". Instead of locking gates and sending attendance emails to parents, society should strengthen the sense of agency and independence of young adults and let them learn to take responsibility for their actions.

An Indian is an adult at 18 and ought to be treated as one.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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Published: 12 Feb 2023, 10:44 PM IST
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