skip to main content

How Old Is Old Enough?

by Darren K. Carlson

First in a two-part series on teens and responsibility

"Mom, why can't I go to the mall by myself?" "All the other girls are getting their bellybuttons pierced, why can't I?" "Can I get my own credit card?" "If I'm old enough to vote and drive, how come I'm not old enough to drink?"

Parents of teenagers probably face questions like these all the time. The age-old debate about which activities are teenage rites of passage, and which are unnecessary risks, rages in American homes every day. A new Gallup Youth Survey* drilled to the core of the conflict by asking teens at what age they feel young people are responsible enough to engage in a variety of activities and behaviors.

Body Images

Teens tend to be appearance-conscious and sometimes feel a strong urge to change their images in ways their parents might not approve. The choices range from temporary and modest to permanent and drastic -- and teens' opinions on these issues are similarly diverse.

On average, teens say 11 is a reasonable age to get one's ears pierced, but they feel young people should wait until they are teenagers (at least 13) to dye their hair.

Attitudes change somewhat when it comes to tattoos and piercing body parts other than the ears. For piercing something other than ears, teens give an average acceptable age of 17. And, teens feel a person should be a legal adult before getting a tattoo -- the average acceptable age for that is 19.

Money Matters

On average, American teens feel young people are not responsible enough to get their own credit cards until they turn 18. But when asked at what age people are responsible enough to quit school and begin working full time, they give an average response of 16 -- the legal age at which teenagers are allowed to drop out of school in most states.

Adult Supervision Required?

Many parents of teens ponder the issue of supervision on a daily basis. What is the right age to let kids stay home alone, or go to the mall without a parent, or go to a concert? Ultimately, the answer is up to the parents. But if the teens themselves were in charge, they would allow themselves to do all three things before turning 16. On average, teens think 13 is an acceptable age to stay home unsupervised in the evening. They tend to think teens should be slightly older before going to a shopping mall without a guardian (14, on average) and slightly older again before attending a concert without an adult (15, on average).

*These results are based on mail and Web surveys with a randomly selected national sample of 549 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted April 15 to May 22, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030