I want to propose a philosophical question and then answer it with a bit of counter-intuitive sociology, and then address why people persist in availing themselves of the usual philosophical conclusion. The philosophical question is the age at which children take on moral responsibility, the so called age of consent. The usual moral answer is that children reach the age of consent when they are capable of managing their own lives, at least in the sphere in which their ability to give consent is at issue. They are supposed to be able to evaluate information and their own emotions and so give informed consent to their own action and the action of others. The law in most states sets sixteen as the age at which people can agree to sexual relations and twenty one as the age at which people can purchase alcohol. But it proves impossible to give an accurate definition to this leaping off point for adulthood. Why a particular age for one thing and a different age for another? What changes in a person that they become morally responsible or is it just that age is just a rule of thumb for developmental processes recognized to happen but not very well understood?
We have not come up with an adequate analysis of this matter even though great legal and philosophical minds have been considering this question for millennia. Catholics think children form a moral conscience by the time they are six; contemporary liberal criminologists think the brain is not fully developed until people are in their late teens and so previous to that are inclined to compulsive behavior, and ancient Hebrews thought young men could become full members of the religious community at the age of thirteen, presumably because at that age they could take on the responsibility of herding sheep. And yet that goes against our readily admitted capacity to recognize the difference between childish and adult behavior, everyone able to say someone else is acting like a child. Every attempt at definition seems to turn into a matter of degree rather than a qualitative distinction, which means that an adult is just more of a child or a child just less of an adult, which seems to go contrary to our readily admitted capacity to recognize the difference between the two.
The question can be answered by transferring the quality that is being described from one object to another. In this particular case, that means that moral responsibility is not a characteristic of the child but of the adult, which is not to be confused with the purely cultural claim that adults define when children become adults. Rather, the question is when do adults do so, and the answer is that children become adults when adults no longer take pleasure in managing the lives of children but leave the management of their lives to others or to the children themselves. That reversal allows a further distinction between what are considered moral and immoral conditions for child rearing. Moral child rearing consists, contrary to much pop psychology, of guardians--usually parents-- managing children’s lives for the satisfaction of the guardian, and immoral child rearing consists of managing children’s lives for the sake of the social good or for some abstract definition of the well being of the child. We like the physical intimacy of taking care of babies even if it can be yucky, time consuming and draining, and we like explaining simple things, like how to tie shoes and the whereabouts of Madagascar, to children, but all of that becoming burdensome when the children become more knowledgeable than we are, have minds of their own, and have private lives. Beyond their first decade, which is when children are introduced in a preliminary way to the things the parents as adults care about, whether that is baseball or camping or art movies, children are just less informed adults, the major function of the family being to find the institutional resources whether in the form of music lessons or summer camp or religious instruction, whereby the children can get better at being adults at least in the sense of knowing about things or having experiences that adults pride themselves on looking back on as formative periods of their lives.
Raising children to be soldiers for the state is a duty rather than a pleasure, even if considered an honorable one. Most child welfare agencies are therefore a species of immoral child rearing because children are being raised to meet the goals of good care rather than for parental satisfaction, and that is also the case of most parenting by birth parents who feel the burden of raising children but not the satisfaction of forming young lives as a kind of creativity that anyone, even someone not powerful or wealthy or successful at work, can manage. That is why the recipients of child welfare agency services may not at all be grateful for what is being done for them. They resent that strangers are intruding into the pleasure they take in rearing children in the ways they please and that resentment does not go away just because a check is attached to the services, really requirements, that are being placed on the family.
The distinction between moral and immoral child rearing generates the age of consent. It is the age at which children have their lives no longer managed by others for unselfish reasons, which means, in practice, that children are now required to negotiate their lives as best they can in the midst of ideological and institutional strictures that are givens, and where they become aware that they must rely on themselves to act in their own behalf. This happens for most Western children by the time they reach kindergarten. The point is not an exaggerated or rhetorical one and, indeed, has a good deal of support in the history of educational psychology. Dewey thought that children were on the right track when, at a young age, they began to problem solve rather than just memorize. The point does clarify, however, the extent to which looking for adulthood in the late teens or treating institutions as acting in loco parentis is very wide of the mark.
So how come so many people get this point wrong? A general social misunderstanding can arise out of very familiar social materials, and exist at the same time as a deeper explanation does. This goes contrary to the notion that people know their interests or that social thought must in some sense be accurate in a positivistic manner in describing what has always been. The discrepancy between beliefs and actuality occurs because there are reasons for people to mistake or even simply reverse a causal relation or to misattribute characteristics. In the case in hand, people think that parents make decisions for children because parents have power over children when in fact power, which is no more than the structural constraints of a situation, forces children to be accountable for themselves, ever aware of the fact that their parents have so much power and influence over them that it is good for the children to get on their parents’ good side, and part of doing that is finding virtue in what the parents do. An overbearing parent is experienced by the child as just the way commendably powerful people are, so long as it doesn’t go too far. Parents, for their part, choose to believe that children may have motives of their own choosing, but not keen powers of observation, because parents don’t want to believe that such an eagle eye is being focussed on them by little ones who are so independant. You don’t feel comfortable having strangers in your home, so it takes time to accept that they have become strangers, something not recognized until the teenage years. So both parents and children carry around with them conflicting assessments of the other, preferring the cognitive dissonance of at once sensing children as keeping their secrets and also having the impression that children are what they appear to be, sometime hostile and sometimes loving, not bothering to resolve the difference, much less appreciate it as a contradiction. Resolving it would require parents recognizing children to be frighteningly similar to adults in the way they deploy their emotions.
There is a most general point to be drawn from this analysis of the role of children. The concept of responsibility can be defined and usually is defined in a Hobbesian way to mean that people who are capable of acting are therefore responsible for whether they act or not, and so a nation neglecting to intrude on the affairs of another nation is just as much a choice as sending in the troops in the same way that a person who could give a hand to a stranger who has fallen in the street is responsible for doing that or failing to do that unless there is a disability that prevents offering assistance. Responsibility is therefore a feature of the natural law in that it is part of the inevitable and definitional characteristics of social life, and so needs no enforcement but is self-enforcing. But the reverse rule, which is that people can be expected to do what is beyond their capacity, holds when authority is categorically other, as happens with God, armies and parenthood. God always asks us to do what is beyond us, to be better than what we are; armies can be brutal even if they try to discipline themselves so as to feel better within themselves and to the folks back home; and parents tell children how to behave even while children already have minds of their own and are already passing their own judgments on the foibles of their parents.