To say that the world our adolescents are entering is more complex than the one we grew up in is a vast understatement. The rapidity of change, the development of globalization and the technological advancement alone make for a challenging enough environment. When we factor in that the social structures, such as extended families, religious organizations and clear societal norms, which once brought direction and boundaries to growing up, are now either non-existent or greatly diminished in their impact, we can see that teens often feel that it is up to them to find their own way. The values that we as parents and teachers try to impart are often at odds with what peers are telling them or the examples they are given through music, movies, advertising and internet sources. Once teens have access to the internet, there is really no control over the influences in their lives. Short of locking them in a box, we
have to acknowledge that these influences are part of their experience and we must learn to deal with them in a conscious way. They need information about the world they are entering. If we wait too long we lose standing in their eyes; they see us as out of touch, behind the times and not a source of pertinent information. We cannot put on blinders because we are either uncomfortable with what is emerging or unwilling to accept what is unfolding. Truly, if we do not help our children navigate this labyrinth, we are doing them a disservice.
For the past several decades much has been written about rites of passage and the lack of them in our society. The term “rites of passage” has become cliché, being used to describe everything from a first kiss and getting a driver’s license to getting drunk and even being arrested. Where rites of passage used to be a vital and crucial initiation conducted by the most revered members of a society, it is now a random series of experiences decided upon by the youths themselves. Without a consciously guided path to take into adulthood they make up their own rituals and most of them are destructive in nature, whether it is driving too fast, drug and alcohol use and abuse or premature sexual activity. Parents have even become rather fatalistic about it, saying things like, “He cares more about what his friends say than what I tell him.”, or, “He’ll be OK as an adult if he survives being a teenager.” Many parents of teens literally hold their breath and hope for the best.
The question becomes: Are the rites of passage that teens are going through today serving them and society well? All indicators, from statistics about drug and alcohol abuse to numbers of fatal crashes involving teens to high school and college drop out rates to the upsurge of gang membership to teen pregnancy rates and the numbers of exasperated parents throwing up their hands at a loss for what to do, tell us they are not. So, what can we offer as an alternative?
Adolescents will go through a transformation during their teen years. Everything from their bodies to their relationships to their view of spirituality will change. The question is: Will it be guided? In the past virtually every society that can be studied had some sort of initiation or rites of passage for its adolescents. The rituals were conceived to give guidance during this transition. These societies did not do this just because it seemed like a nice idea or there was nothing else to do on a dull Saturday. They did it because the behavior of their unwieldy teenagers demanded it. If they were going to become contributing members of the society, they would need to be shown how to develop constructive habits. These rites were performed outside of the family structure. It was understood that the energy of these youths needed more support than the family could provide. Usually it was a circle of elders or extended family members who took on this role.
In studying traditional rites of passage rituals, one finds a consistent pattern. They began with what might be referred to as a “call to adventure”. Here the child was often ritually kidnapped and taken away by a group of elders. In the myths that give a context to the rites of passage, the youth often tries to resist this call to move toward the next stage of life but is made to by circumstance. This initial stage is about separation: it is time to leave childhood behind, and most children don’t want to leave the comfortable and carefree realm of childhood, even though they may want the benefits of adulthood. Today, this circle of elders or even the extended family is often not present. The youths begin to reject their parents influence as in days of old but instead of wise elders stepping into the void, equally inexperienced peers become the source of direction, rituals and trials. The resulting experiences do little to prepare them for the responsibilities of adulthood and often take them toward self-destructive behaviors.
The second stage is often called “Finding One’s Path”. Through vision quests, isolation and other trials where one was forced to confront oneself, the youth was forced to seek the answer to the question: Who am I? Here the child was seeking to understand and accept his own gifts and begin thinking about how he might define his own goals, beliefs and values while beginning to think about how he would put his unique gifts to use for the benefit of his society. Today, the process of finding oneself often becomes an attempt to fit into a peer group by dressing, talking, walking and behaving a certain way. Instead of developing the skills needed for independence, they transfer their dependence on their parents to a dependence on their peers. Goals and values can often fall to the lowest common denominator or are determined by the influence of advertising and media.
The third stage can be referred to as “Entering the Labyrinth”. Here a youth was put through a series of tests or ordeals to prove he was worthy of taking on the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. Often during this stage there was a conscious experience with death, where the youths would face their mortality and undergo a symbolic death of their childhood. This experience of the opposing forces that accompany life gave context to the preciousness of life. Birth and death became meaningful passages that were made conscious to the initiates. These ordeals were also designed to break down a youth’s egotism so that they would become receptive to new information and insight. There was no automatic entry to adulthood on a given birthday; surviving these ordeals brought about a transformation and a gaining of confidence which was necessary in order to be accepted as a “new” person in the community. Without guidance the ordeals youths create for themselves often involve drugs, alcohol, sex, risk taking and, at times, violence. Some teens create ordeals and separation for themselves by failing or dropping out of school and hence driving away their parents and the adults who care about them. Teens need positive opportunities to prove themselves in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community. They need to be seen as having gone through transformative experiences, as having proven themselves.
The fourth stage was often a guided look back by the elders at the experiences of the initiation to distill out the lessons learned or the vision that the youths had been given during their ordeals. From there the youths would take this new vision of their lives and begin to plan how it would manifest. They would begin to see how they could lead their lives in service to others. They came to know that they needed to share what they had learned, for in the future they would be the elders guiding the next generation of youths. The hedonistic experiences of today’s teens cannot lead to an understanding of life in service of others and hence cannot guide them to find meaning in their work and relationships. What we see as a result of these youth generated rites is a focus on self and materialism.
The final stage of the rites of passage process was the return to the community. Here there was a formal acknowledgement by the society that the youth was now worthy of new respect and responsibility, that the child had been transformed into an adult. It was understood that this new adult still needed guidance and support and also that he was now mature enough to assume the role of an adult in the community. Today we have no formal way of assessing or acknowledging the transition into adulthood. Is it a driver’s license, graduation from high school or college, becoming a parent? None of these are guarantees that a person is ready to be an adult, in fact, much of today’s media portrayals of young men glorify extending adolescence into one’s twenties or even thirties. Just watch a few beer commercials and one can see this quite obviously. Refusing to take on the responsibilities and commitments of an adult is now idealized. “Kids” living with their parents can now extend well into adulthood.
In traditional and more homogenous societies, the content of the rites of passage was consistent. Cultural and spiritual norms and the roles needed in the community changed very little. These could be passed down through the generations. Today, where change happens so rapidly, we don’t have a ready made template to guide us in creating rites of passage. The plurality of our society and spiritual beliefs, the demands of a changing and increasingly technological economy and the desire for individual expression make creating meaningful rituals and rites of passage difficult. But just because something is difficult does not mean it should not be done. In fact, the consciousness needed to create these new rites is as beneficial to those creating them as it is to the youths who need them so badly.
Men today are sorely in need of community. A study in the 1990’s revealed that on average, men in the United States had less than one close friend. Most things men do together are activities that afford little opportunity for real communication. While playing sports, watching sports, even doing work projects together, usually conversation remains on a superficial level. The one word response is a male art form, but it doesn’t serve us well when we are facing the difficulties that will always arise in life, be it in our marriages, families, work or health. When these difficulties do arise, we don’t have the skills or avenues in place to communicate them. This is not a heritage we should pass on to our sons or the young men in our lives. By coming together to define “rites of passage” for our sons and students we, out of necessity, begin to develop the communication skills that we need, both because we need to know how to teach them to these young men and also because we take the time to define our beliefs and learn how to express them. Doing this, we develop a vital vocabulary that serves both us and them.
Rites of passage for today must include the practical skills needed to maintain a house and car, financial literacy, spiritual expression, moral guidance, finding one’s path in life, stewardship of the earth, how to have successful relationships, respect for women, caring for those in need, adventure and challenge, mentorship and more. Each community must take the time to define these for themselves and determine what they are capable of teaching and what they will need help in bringing. Just as in days of yore, the youth provide the energy. It is our job to guide it in a constructive direction. Our boys need us.