There are some people, including some parents, who believe the answer to this question is “when they’re adults” – when they’ve hit certain legal markers of adulthood, like being eighteen, or social and cultural markers of adulthood, like moving out and holding a job. There are even some schools of thought that hold that since the development of our prefrontal cortex, (a part of the brain that handles rational thinking), isn’t complete until we’re about 25, young people should be shielded from any important decisions until they reach this age. (Interestingly though, there are some things like quickly recognising patterns and an openness to new ideas, that young people are cognitively better at than older adults).
As a youth work organisation we believe that it’s important for children and young people to have choices – to have agency. This ranges from giving a toddler the choice between having mushy peas or garden peas with their dinner, to letting a sixteen year old choose what A-level courses they want to take or who they want to have romantic relationships with, if anyone. All these choices not only give a child an important sense of agency in their own life now, but are also like exercises to develop the muscles of their brain, training the brain in decision making for all the future choices they will have to make once they do become adults.
Adulthood, much like brain development, isn’t a binary thing. You don’t go from a helpless child, unable to make your own informed choices, to a wise adult overnight. Instead, it’s a long developmental process where your ever-increasing level of agency trains you to make your own informed choices over time. A key part of youth work is supporting young people to empower themselves to make that successful transition to adulthood, by enabling young people to be partners in their own development, through a skillful balance of trusting young people and also guiding them through supportive questions and one’s own life experience.
But if adulthood and learning to make informed choices is a process, how do we work out when a young person has the ability to make serious, impactful choices about their lives? For some choices we have a legal cut off date because, as a society, we’ve decided things like like joining the Army or buying alcohol should be unavailable to younger people regardless of their level of maturity. But what about different choices and guidelines around agency, for example, when using a hard cutoff date could do more harm than good?
“Gillick competence” is what we call the ability of a person under the age of sixteen to make their own informed choices. The phrase comes from a legal case where Lord Fraser put forward in the Gillick case, a set of criteria to determine if someone under the age of 16 can make their own decisions regarding sexual health, and this is often recognised as a wider framework for assessing competance for children and young people to make decisions. Assessing Gillick competence is a way that medical practitioners can determine whether a young person has enough knowledge and agency to make certain decisions about themselves and their body, like whether or not they can access contraception – or whether they can choose to have medical treatments their parents don’t agree with, like a blood transfusion if their family are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Young people making choices about their lives and their bodies has become a controversial flash-point when it comes to trans young people, but the question about agency is a lot broader than that. Choosing what clothes you wear, what name you go by (does ‘Robert’ prefer to be called Rob, Bob, or Bobby?), what interests you pursue: these are choices that should be equally available to trans and cis young people. Similarly, a young person’s choices about medical treatment shouldn’t hinge on what that treatment is, but whether they have the agency and competency to decide for themselves whether or not it’s appropriate for them. We strongly support young people’s rights to assert their own preferences and make their own choices, in a developmentally appropriate way, on their journey towards adulthood.
by Jack Tielemans