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Rite of Passage

Mick Stratton


How can we expect our children to become worthy adults if we don’t explain and demonstrate what that is?

Virtually all primitive societies have celebrations that recognize the passage from childhood to adulthood. Most of what we call civilized societies also have this passage, though it may not be as easily recognized. It seems that in all cases it includes three aspects: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual.

The physical attainment of adulthood is manifest in puberty and this is beyond the control of the individual or society. However, groups can and should encourage the individual to honor the body though exercise, hygiene and diet. There is an innate recognition of the value of excellence in the physical. Virtually all societies show honor and respect for those who excel in sports, games and physical accomplishments.

The mental consists of knowledge, thinking ability and problem solving. Societies expect children to develop skills in these areas before they are considered adults. Those who excel are looked upon with admiration.

The spiritual is most often measured by the religious beliefs of the society. In all cases it includes the understanding that there is something greater than self and that the individual has responsibility for the group. Again, the greater the degree of spirituality, the greater is the admiration.

Because of the importance of these aspects, the children of all societies are taught that to be an adult they need to acquire a high degree of accomplishment in all three. Historically most societies have held celebrations when the youth met the designated requirements to become an adult. This celebration is often called “Rite of Passage.”

Involved societies have the adults direct this process through early adolescene until completion. Instruction and evaluation are always important components of the process. Modern secular society has pulled away from this so that now there are very few events that can be considered as Rite of Passage.

For young ladies the more affluent still have the Debutant Ball (Sweet Sixteen Parties) and several Hispanic Cultures have the Quinceanera. Many Jews still celebrate the Bar Mitzvah for boys and the Bat Mitzvah for girls.

It is unfortunate that there are so few who do this because the youth who are moving into adulthood have a need for a celebration of this passage. Often they will have their own celebrations if the adults are not involved. A good example of this is their initiation into selected societies of which the most notorious is the gang.

American society has lost almost all recognition of the process of becoming an adult, as well as any kind of formalized instruction of what adulthood means. To many, it is no more than getting a driver’s license, the right to vote or to legally be able to drink alcohol.

Those who receive religious instruction or belong to such youth organizations as the Boy and Girl Scouts often get excellent instruction, but rarely are formally recognized as an adult. Probably the one group in the United States that comes closest to having a complete system of passage is the Jewish community, through their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

This is not to say that families across the country do not prepare their children for adulthood using the same principles. Many fathers and mothers begin talking to their children at a young age about the physical, mental, and spiritual, as well as what is expected of them. Strong families hold responsibility and adulthood as very important. What they usually lack is a formal process and a ceremony to recognize this.

This paper is an attempt to create a model for a formal process leading to the Rite of Passage for daughters and sons. It includes all three aspects: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual.

The formal process itself should cover three to four years from the ages of twelve to fifteen or sixteen. At the age of twelve the adults of the family should explain to the child what the process will be and what the parameters are. The child should be an active participant, giving input and direction to the specifics. There should then be a small celebration recognizing that the child has officially become a youth and a candidate for adulthood.

The youth then should work on fulfilling the specifics of the parameters. The adults should periodically evaluate the candidate’s performance. Once the youth has succeeded in meeting the qualifications and has reached the appropriate age, the ceremony into adulthood would proceed. With the daughter this may be the traditional Quinceanera, Bat Mitzvah or Debutant Ball. For the son it could be a formal dinner with selected friends of his and his parents.

The secret to the success of the process is the tasks that the adults and youth agree upon. Because each youth is different, no process should be exactly the same and the youth’s input is essential. Still, there are certain expectations that should be common in all cases. These are discussed below.

The Physical

For appearance and for the health of the body, the state of one’s physical fitness is important. Because of both of these reasons, exercise and physical skill should be encouraged. An added benefit in the setting of challenges and the overcoming of them is it helps in the building of character.

An adult should know the reasons for maintaining a healthy body as well as have the skills and discipline to do so. A well balanced adult should exercise throughout life.

As the youth sets on the journey to become an adult there are three areas of the physical challenge that should be considered. This is the attainment of a fitness level, become accomplished in a set of skills, perhaps through a sport, and reach a level of accomplishment in a physical activity or sport.

Fitness Level: Examples of meeting a fitness standard are: running a distance in a specified time, swimming a distance in a specified time, being able to perform so many push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups. It is very important that the youth be involved in setting these standards. Because each has different strengths, weaknesses and interests, the fitness standard may vary greatly from one to the other. In any case, the youth needs to know that physical health is highly correlated to fitness and therefore it is important to reach and maintain a specified level.

Skill Development: To develop and maintain fitness the youth need to have the tools to do so. Again this may vary greatly from one to the other. One may choose to run, do karate and play soccer. Another may pick swimming, dance and baseball. Regardless, when each turns twelve the family needs to discuss what areas to work on and what skills to develop.

Level of Accomplishment: Some activities and sports gear more for this than others. In karate the goal may be being awarded the brown belt. In gymnastics or swimming it may be achieving a certain classification. In football or basketball it might be just making the high school team.

The specific youth will be expected to pick the area of skills, obtain the level of accomplishment and pass the fitness level to be ready to go through the Rite of Passage.

The Mental (Knowledge)

In some ways this area is the easiest to set standards for and areas of accomplishment in, since all children are expected to go to school. The most elementary of standards would be the passing of 10th or 11th grade.

For most youths more should be expected. They may be expected to read one or two classics a year, beginning at age twelve. There should be discussion of each book on completion and they should write a synopsis of what the book meant to them. The books considered as the classics should be on a list comprised by the parents or a respected teacher. This could include books such as the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, selected works of O’Henry, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Frankenstein by Mary Shelby, The Sea Wolf by Jack London, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The youth should also be able to make suggestions of other books that that particular youth thinks should be included on the list.

The youth should be expected to have knowledge of different economic, political and world view philosophies. Included might be the following philosophies: capitalism, communism, socialism, idealism, realism, pragmatism and existentialism.

Upon turning fifteen a paper might be written concerning the youth’s world view.

The expectation of studying a language and knowing the history and culture of one other country would also be of great value.

The Spiritual (Of the Soul)

If the parents are religious the youth should receive religious instruction in that specific religion, but spirituality is really more than that. It includes one’s view of God, but it also includes music, art and reaching out to others.

By the age of twelve, the youth should have picked a musical instrument and then learned to play it to some level of accomplishment, or have become involved in some sort of art including poetry.

The youth should also be expected to have done a prescribed amount of service. This could include mission work or volunteering at a hospital.

The Rite of Passage

Once the youth have completed the predetermined requirements and has reached the designated age it would be time to celebrate the Rite of Passage. The youth would have had contemplated on what it means to be an adult, as well as would have developed an ideal to try to live up to. This youth would have been involved in the setting of standards which have been reached.

During this time, others should have been aware of the youth’s journey. All should be gathered together in celebration, as the parents declare to the world, “This is our daughter; this is our son; of whom we are very proud. We present her (him) to you as a young adult because she (he) has earned the right to be called such.” This would be the Rite of Passage and, hopefully, something the young adult would remember throughout life.