Across numerous areas of the law—including family law, criminal law, labor law, health law, and other fields—when children are involved, maturity determinations are pivotal to outcomes. Upon reaching maturity, however defined, an individual has access to a range of rights not previously available and is expected to fulfill certain duties. Despite the central importance of maturity, the law’s approach to it has been to consider the concept of maturity in a piecemeal and issue-specific fashion. The result is a legal construct of maturity that is anything but consistent or coherent. For example, every state has a minimum age below which a child is considered not mature enough to consent to sex. However, if money is involved, more than forty states deem that child mature enough to have consented to sex for money and be charged with the crime of prostitution (even if the money is paid to a pimp and the child never sees it). This Article seeks to undertake a holistic assessment of the law’s approach to maturity.
Markers of maturity in the law frequently occur at different points in time. An examination of key indicators of maturity under the law reveals that the law is inconsistent, not only across issues but also within the same issues. Children are deemed mature enough to participate in the polity (e.g., vote) at a different age from when they are deemed mature enough to exercise independent economic power (e.g., work or contract), control their own bodies (e.g., engage in consensual sex), or assume adult social responsibilities (e.g., drink alcohol in public places).
In short, the law provides little clear guidance on how maturity should be understood and treated. Recent research on brain development and the work of cognitive psychologists provide some answers. To date, however, a significant consideration has been largely overlooked—cultural conceptions of maturity. Thus, this Article seeks to bring cultural perspectives on maturity into the dialogue. Ultimately, this Article aims to bring some clarity to the issue of maturity and examine whether cultural practices can inform the legal, policy, and moral questions in the law’s approach to maturity.