Is this really the end of adolescence as depicted by Paula S. Fass in her new widely acclaimed book: “The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting From Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child” (Princeton University Press 2016)? And if it is, what are the opportunities and limitations for rites of passage?
Fass writes, “Adolescence was no longer an adequate description of this long postponement of adulthood. It never had been more than an in-between stage, meant to comprise a moratorium of a few years. Americans floundered to find a term to cover the new postponement of maturity. The best they have come up with is Jeffrey Arnett’s ‘emerging adulthood’.”
If we are now considering the process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood as “emerging,” then how does that inform the “emergence” of rites of passage within a culture and community in ways that meet the dynamic changes we are experiencing? Dr. Fass’s work lends itself to further exploration of community-oriented rites of passage and “emergent design.” It points out the need for community engagement and substantial support for children as they come of age over many years.
Put into practice over the past 40 years one community-oriented rite of passage process has recognized the extended condition of coming of age within contemporary western society. The process begins within a community by setting forth an expectation that around the time of puberty is the beginning of the end of childhood when rite of passage practices begin and last for years. Whole systems designs respond to the dynamics of individual change and the social and cultural imperatives for acquiring skills, attitudes and beliefs that serve the individual as well as their family, culture, community and nature.
Rites of Passage within a Changing Landscape of Contemporary Youth Development
Community-oriented rites of passage, or as we’ve called it for the past 30 years, youth & community development through rites of passage, recognizes reciprocity between the individual and community. It goes further by recognizing reciprocity and connection between family, ancestors, spirit, and nature within the 13.5 billion year-old story of the universe. Community members are introduced to a concept of youth development that involves connecting and enhancing environments and building competencies that promote the positive development of children and youth in their families, in their schools, among their peers, and in their community and with a strong connection to the natural world. Youth come of age over a period of years through initiation into these environments, which are connected, non-sequentially, within a systems framework that promotes whole human beings and strong, resilient, and adaptive communities. Just as in youth development there is no single point or experience where a child miraculously becomes an adult, no matter what parents/guardians and his or her community wish. Rather, it is a gradual process over many years and within different environments.
Youth demonstrate expected competencies within each environment. Family and community periodically celebrate demonstrations of competencies and special times in a child’s development, including getting a library card, departing primary and entering secondary school, selecting and participating in a healthy positive leisure time activity, learning and teaching a skill to others, making a contribution, being of service in their community and getting a driver’s license.
Welcoming a child into another stage of development within each environment provides incentives and opportunities for continued positive youth development. A dynamic process of initiation is always changing and adapting, yielding designs and practices that emerge and are attuned to the place and time in which youth come of age. Community-oriented rites of passage emerge within a set of guiding principles and not a static program. This coming of age process is articulated in a well-documented and accepted approach called the “Social Development Model of Youth Development” (see Social Development chart below) and is also aligned with another youth and community development approach called developmental assets. These two approaches are aligned with community-oriented rites of passage and support other contemporary youth development foci, such as social-emotional learning, character education, resiliency, and compassion and school climate. This strengthens a community-oriented rite of passage to become a unifying story that ties all of a community’s assets and resources together in a whole systems approach to education and youth development.
We use the following definition as a starting point to consider the regeneration of a modern day rite of passage.
The degree to which a series of activities are a rite of passage is directly proportional to a community’s acceptance and participation in the activities and youth’s perception and belief in the activities as fulfilling their conscious and unconscious needs for transformative experiences. That is, a modern day rite of passage is achieved when parents, guardians or surrogates and the community create and participate in experiences which are perceived to be transformative by youth and in fact offer them increased status within the community, responsibilities to be in service to others and facilitate their healthy transition through adolescence.
The celebration of a rite of passage is renewing for the entire community, which includes earth and all our relations. A child’s public expression of and commitment to a community’s values and beliefs reinforces expectations for behaviors for the survival of the entire community and health and well-being of all our relations. A child’s coming of age presents an opportunity for the whole community to examine, adapt and re-commit themselves to their social and cultural heritage. In this light it takes a whole child to raise a village.
A community’s collective involvement in the emergence and adaptation of this coming of age process strengthens a sense of community. Rites of passage are rich with history and tradition that speak to the most basic of human needs both within the unconscious and conscious mind. They can be effective at igniting and mobilizing a community into action on behalf of its children. Community-oriented rites of passage have elements that can be creatively integrated to reflect the culture and natural rhythms of a setting – a place called “home.” When diverse groups of citizens, youth and adults within a community collaborate these elements emerge and fulfill their purpose as youth and community development practices that become the ritual roots of a sense of community. These elements, described elsewhere, serve as guiding principles for utilizing youth and community development through rites of passage as a way to mobilize a community and nourish life (See: The Busyness of Raising Children: Are we nourishing the lives of our children© March 3, 2014 – Rite Way Blog).
© David Blumenkrantz, 2016
Written By David Blumenkrantz Ph.D. M.Ed.