Minimum ages

Children’s lives are governed by rules based on minimum ages which set limits on when they are allowed to do certain things. But whether it concerns getting married, working, voting or when they can join the military or make decisions about their own healthcare, minimum ages are largely based on assumptions about children’s capacity, they vary from country to country, and often amount to age discrimination.

The artwork below amplifies our research on how minimum ages affect children’s rights, and sets out in what cases they can be used legitimately.


Minimum age rules rest on two general assumptions made by adults. First, that children lack the capacity to take responsibility for their decisions and therefore must be protected. And second, that age limits are the best way to achieve that protection. But these are assumptions, and by default they ignore children’s individual circumstances, as well as the fact that competencies, skills, and life experience differ within the span of childhood. What’s more, in some cases minimum ages may in fact reduce a child’s protection. For instance, what possible justification is there for setting any age threshold for children’s right to file a complaint in court or seek advice without parental consent?


One legitimate reason for having a minimum age threshold is to provide a benchmark on children’s presumed capacity to guard against the possibility that their capacity will be denied arbitrarily. In these cases, setting a minimum age ensures that after a given age children acquire an absolute right.


In areas where age restrictions serve no protective purpose and potentially curb children’s development and civil rights - e.g. freedom to choose, practise or leave a religion; the right to vote; filing a complaint in court without parental permission - minimum ages should be abandoned.


Capacity is not obtained by reaching a certain age; it is not an innate state that automatically crops up on our birthday. Rather, it depends on external factors and circumstances which are not age-bound. These can include life experiences, the level of autonomy enjoyed by a person, the level of encouragement to develop one’s interests and capacity, as well as the freedom to make decisions and make mistakes - as adults often do too!


Often used as a model for defining competence in cases of medical decision-making, the Scarman guidelines state: “As a matter of law the parental right to determine whether or not their minor child below the age of 16 will have medical treatment terminates if and when the child achieves sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed [and has] sufficient discretion to enable him or her to make a wise choice in his or her own interests.” Notably, the guidelines give children the opportunity to be the main decision maker, and, in establishing individual competence - not age - as being a better indicator of capacity, they do not specify a minimum age at which decisions can be made.