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The term adult has at least three distinct meanings. It can indicate a biologically grown or mature person. It may also mean a plant, animal, or person who has reached full growth or alternatively is capable of reproduction, or the classification legal adult, generally determined as a person who has attained the legally fixed age of majority; as opposed to a minor.

Adulthood can be defined in biology, psychological adult development, law, personal character, or social status. These different aspects of adulthood are often inconsistent and contradictory. A person may be biologically an adult, and have adult behavior but still be treated as a child if they are under the legal age of majority. Conversely one may legally be an adult but possess none of the maturity and responsibility that define adult character.

Coming of age is an event; passing a series of tests to demonstrate the child is prepared for adulthood; or reaching a specified age, sometimes in conjunction with demonstrating preparation. Most modern societies determine legal adulthood based on reaching a legally-specified age without requiring a demonstration of physical maturity or preparation for adulthood.

Some propose that moving into adulthood involves an emotional structuring of denial, suggesting this process becomes necessary to cope with one's own behavior, especially in uncomfortable situations, and also the behavior of others.

Biological adulthood

Historically and cross-culturally, adulthood has been determined primarily by the start of puberty (the appearance of secondary sex characteristics such as menstruation in women, ejaculation in men, and pubic hair in both sexes). In the past a person usually moved from the status of child directly to the status of adult, often with this shift being marked by some type of coming-of-age test or ceremony.

Today as in the past, most medical and general English dictionaries define childhood as the period from infancy to puberty, thus historically adulthood began with puberty. After the social construct of adolescence was created, adulthood split into two forms: social adulthood and biological adulthood. Thus, there are now two primary forms of adults: biological adults (people who have attained reproductive ability, are fertile, or who evidence secondary sex characteristics) and social adults (people who are recognized by their culture and/or law as being adults). Depending on the context, adult can indicate either definition.

Although few or no established dictionaries provide a definition for the two word term biological adult, the first definition of adult in multiple dictionaries includes "the stage of the life cycle of an animal after reproductive capacity has been attained". Thus, the base definition of the word adult is the period beginning at puberty. Although this is the primary definition of the base word adult, the two word term biological adult stresses or clarifies that the original definition, based on the beginning of puberty, is being used (that is, the organism has matured to the biologically important point of being able to reproduce).

Although there is no scientific agreement on when physical maturation completes, in modern society social adulthood somewhat corresponds to the completion of physical maturation. Because the term adult is most often used without the adjective social or biological, and since the term is frequently used to refer to social adults, some writers have mistaken the meaning of the two word phrase biological adult to begin at the end of physical maturation rather than the onset of puberty.

In modern developed countries, puberty and therefore biological adulthood generally begins around 10 years of age for girls and 12 years of age for boys, though this will vary from person to person.

In western countries the relevant age points largely correspond to divisions in the educational system. Young people in grade school are generally not adults (up to about 12 years of age), those in junior high school (11 to 15) and high school (14 to 18) are biological adults but for most purposes are not social adults, and those who have graduated from high school (18 or over) are often recognized as social adults in addition to being biological adults.

Legal adulthood

Legally it means that one can engage in a contract. The same or a different minimum age may be applicable to, for example, parents losing parenting rights and duties regarding the person concerned, parents losing financial responsibility, marriage, voting, having a job, serving in the military, buying/possessing firearms (if legal at all), driving, traveling abroad, involvement with alcoholic beverages (if legal at all), smoking, sex, gambling (both lottery and casino) being a prostitute or a client of a prostitute (if legal at all), being a model or actor in pornography, etc. Admission of a young person to a place may be restricted because of danger for that person, concern that the place may lead the person to immoral behavior, and/or because of the risk that the young person causes damage (for example, at an exhibition of fragile items).

One can distinguish the legality of acts of a young person, and of enabling a young person to carry out that act, by selling, renting out, showing, permitting entrance, participating, etc. There may be distinction between commercially and socially enabling. Sometimes there is the requirement of supervision by a legal guardian, or just by an adult. Sometimes there is no requirement, but just a recommendation.

With regard to pornography one can distinguish:
  • being allowed inside an adult establishment
  • being allowed to purchase pornography
  • being allowed to possess pornography
  • another person being allowed to sell, rent out, or show the young person pornography, see disseminating pornography to a minor
  • being a model or actor in pornography: rules for the young person, and for other people, regarding production, possession, etc. (see child pornography)

With regard to films with violence, etc.:
  • another person being allowed to sell, rent out, or show the young person a film, a cinema being allowed to let a young person (under 17) enter

The legal definition of entering adulthood usually varies between ages 15–21, depending on the region in question. Some cultures in Africa define adult at age 13.

According to Jewish tradition, adulthood is reached at age 13 (the age of the Bar Mitzvah), for Jewish boys, for example, were expected to demonstrate preparation for adulthood by learning the Torah and other Jewish practices. The Christian Bible and Jewish scripture has no age requirement for adulthood or marrying, which includes engaging in sexual activity, however the age of consent for sexual relations in the Vatican is 12. According to The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, the Christian Church of the Middle Ages considered the age of accountability, when a person could be tried and even executed as an adult, to be age 7 .

In most of the world, including most of the United Statesmarker, parts of the United Kingdommarker (Englandmarker, Northern Irelandmarker, Walesmarker), Indiamarker and Chinamarker, the legal adult age is 18 for most purposes, with some notable exceptions:
  1. the United Kingdom: Scotlandmarker (16)
  2. South Koreamarker & British Columbiamarker, New Brunswickmarker, Newfoundland and Labradormarker, Northwest Territoriesmarker, Nova Scotiamarker, Nunavutmarker, Yukon Territorymarker in Canada and Nebraskamarker and Alabamamarker in the United States (19)
  3. Indonesiamarker and Japanmarker (20)
  4. Argentinamarker (21)

See also


  1. International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology (1986)
  2. Churchill’s Medical Dictionary (1989)
  3. (Chumlea, 1982).

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