Uncover the significance of rites of passage in shaping adolescent identity, calling for structured rites to guide youth into adulthood with confidence.
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What rights of passage for youth exist in modern America?

Uncover the significance of rites of passage in shaping adolescent identity, calling for structured rites to guide youth into adulthood with confidence.

At the heart of many cultural behaviours are rites, such as shaking hands upon meeting someone. Importantly, rites can regulate negative emotions, enhance our connections to others, and lessen anxiety.

Rites that involve passages are a particular type of rite. These transformative rites celebrate the passing of a person from one state, role, and/or identity into another, such as children becoming adults. Contemporary marriage and funeral rites (and, to a lesser extent, birth rites) are usually public, communal, and often religious rites of passage.

However, youth-focused rites of passage are difficult to find in America today. Rites that orient, instruct, challenge, mentor, celebrate, and validate the passages into adolescence and then adulthood by such societal institutions as the family, school, and church are almost non-existent.

Without these transformative rites, youth themselves often enact shallow solo or peer-based pseudo-rites. This has led in part to a lack of a solid sense of adult identity and a lack of well-being.

This article explores the importance of such communal rites for youth becoming adults, as these rites help them feel and thus act like adults. We will first delve into the four major areas of development youth experience (biological, social, psychological, and legal) and any significant rites of passage associated with these developmental milestones. We will then explore the pseudo-rites youth enact themselves without communal rites. Lastly, we will offer practical strategies for integrating effective youth-focused rites of passage into American life.

Developmental milestones and related rites of passage for adolescents in America

In childhood development theory, the passage through adolescence for those aged 10–18 comprises a set of intertwined biological, social, and psychological transitions that unfold gradually.

Significant physical changes, including puberty-specific transformations facilitating reproductive capabilities, begin the biological transition from childhood to adolescence. However, these private bodily changes often prompt embarrassment, resulting in limited celebratory rites. In contemporary America, only girls’ menarche receives recognition, alongside the pseudo-rite known as “The Talk,” where parents or educators address sexual maturation with adolescents.

Social transitions extend beyond biological changes, often continuing into the early twenties. Shifts in socioeconomic roles mark this passage, characterised by reduced parental supervision and increased responsibilities and independence. While these social transitions lack formal recognition, common pseudo-rites include receiving a smartphone, attending education-related graduation ceremonies, and the first hunting achievement.

Credit. Midjourney

Marking adolescence: Beyond legal transitions

Adolescence also marks the emergence of personal values and beliefs and heightened self-awareness. While physical and social changes are conspicuous, psychological shifts are subtler. While traditional rites like bar/bat mitzvahs acknowledge religious and moral maturity, many adolescents express their identities through diverse means such as fashion, social media, and hobbies, reflecting their evolving beliefs and preferences.

Legal transitions are the newest type of marker, signifying additional law-based rights and responsibilities at specific ages. Termed a ‘coming of age’ rite, these transitions commonly occur at ages 16, 18, and 21. At 16, celebrating with a ‘sweet 16’ party often marks obtaining a driver’s license, while reaching the legal drinking age of 21 is commemorated with a visit to a bar for a complimentary drink, typical pseudo-rites associated with these legal benchmarks.

Legal passages linked to age milestones are not earned; individuals obtain them solely based on birthdays, regardless of their competencies. Relying on age alone to determine maturity results in shallow and unfulfilling experiences for many young adults. Genuine development encompasses bodily, social, and psychological changes, necessitating community support to recognize and validate individual growth with appropriate rites.

Youth rites reappear in other forms and ways

When communities, institutions, families, and mentors fail to guide youth through intentional rites of passage, self-initiated and peer-driven pseudo-rites emerge. These unconscious rites often lead to a distorted adult identity, evaded responsibilities, and contribute to mental health challenges among many adolescents.

Many self-enacted, self-oriented pseudo-rites derive from what youth absorb from popular culture, forming an unhealthy feedback loop. Two of the most common self-enacted substitutions are the loss of virginity and obtaining piercings or tattoos.

Peer-driven, group-based pseudo-rites, such as illegal street racing, fraternity hazing, and gang beatings, often emphasise group affiliation over adult responsibilities. Emerging behaviours like trolling, cyberbullying, and sexting further contribute to informal, technology-based pseudo-rites among youth.

Self-enacted and peer-driven pseudo-rites often leave youth feeling caught between adolescence and adulthood. These risky behaviours accelerate the transition through pubertal and social adolescence, but many youths may lack the psychological maturity and legal accountability typically associated with adulthood.

Need for new rites for youth

Non-existent, ineffective, or inappropriate rites can lead to confusion, angst, anxiety, and thus a lack of well-being for youth. Thirty years ago, in 1994, the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential named the lack of rites of passage in global society a major problem.

To solve this problem, today’s youth must be ritualised into adulthood for their well-being. They need to be known, engaged, and mentored to flourish. As we have seen, there are many opportune changes that youth experience, but few intentional rites mark their attainment. Youth-focused rites should celebrate these biological, socioeconomic, and psychological transformations—not just the legal privileges gained.

To establish effective youth rites of passage, a comprehensive plan is essential. Firstly, a public orientation rite should be held to acknowledge and prepare youth for the transition. Secondly, mentors should conduct periodic socialisation rites, providing guidance, challenges, and celebrations to shape youths’ self-perception. Lastly, a public validation rite should confirm the attainment of adult status, altering societal perceptions of youth’s place in society.

Utilising the orientation-socialisation-validation model, we can develop new rites of passage for youth. For instance, preceding puberty, an orientation rite could provide preparation. Subsequently, instructional sessions on sexual health and hygiene would be conducted, accompanied by celebrations of milestones like starting to shave or wearing a bra. Lastly, a validation ceremony would signify the attainment of biological adulthood.

One ingenious journalist, after watching with her thirteen-year-old son a young Kunta Kinte in the TV series Roots experience “manhood training,” devised thirteen challenges covering thirteen different areas of life for her son to complete that included riding the train alone, cooking dinner, and a solo thirteen-mile walk.

Conclusion

Adolescence is full of potential opportunities for rites of passage. Today, most American youth-based rites are either age-fixed, self-enacted, or peer-driven pseudo-rites. This does not have to be so. And it is to our detriment if we do not rise to the challenge.

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Journal reference

Burrow, H. M. (2023). Ritualized into adulthood: the scarcity of youth-focused rites of passage in America. Discover Global Society1(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.1007/s44282-023-00027-3

Heather Marie Burrow holds a PhD in Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, California. Her academic work focuses on the ancient Near Eastern environment, Hebrew Bible, rituals, and the philosophy of religion. Prior to entering academia, Heather worked in the IT field as a web developer for ten years, gaining insight into the significance of input data for achieving success in output.