Coming of Age

Last week, a friend and I were talking about coming of age rituals. I was speculating about how such a ritual that might fit into a futuristic culture. My friend objected, saying “As a historian, my feeling is that such rituals pretty much die out as a culture becomes more technologically advanced.”

On some gut level, I found I was protesting this conclusion, but certainly my friend has a point. Even where “coming of age” rituals still exist – the Catholic sacrement of Confirmation springs to mind, as does the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah – these rituals are not part of the culture as a whole, merely part of the religious sub-culture.

That made me think. In pre-technological cultures, coming of age rituals were often linked to religion. The first example that I thought of is the Apache Da-i-da, a coming of age/ puberty ritual for young women. In this ritual, the girl would run various “races” (I use the word in a qualified sense since the girl often ran alone and was required less to maintain speed than to show herself as surefooted). When running her Da-i-da, the girl wore traditional clothing and was taught that she embodied White Painted Woman, one of the deities.

At the conclusion of her ordeal, the girl was considered able to bestow the blessings of White Painted Woman on those famiy and friends who had gathered to witness the ritual.

These puberty rituals did not die out with the coming of technology – or with the separation of religion and private life.

Among the Spanish-speaking cultures of New Mexico, the quinceaera, remains very important. I’ve read many articles in which modern practioners stress that, although to an outsider the quinceaera may look like nothing more than a big “coming out” party, many families emphasize that the celebrant now will be expected to assume a more adult role.

Maybe that’s the problem with modern “coming of age” rituals. Although the young person is told on a given day that day he or she is an adult and will be expected to take on an adult role, the next day he or she is relegated to a child’s role again. Maybe for the ritual to have any meaning, the responsibilities must change.

Certainly, the modern United States is conflicted on this issue. I started considering various events that many young people – robbed by our culture of genuine “coming of age” rituals – have substituted on their own.

First comes learning to drive. Depending on which state in which you live, you can get your driver’s license at as young as fourteen (although many of these are provisional licenses). However, that’s where the new responsibility stops. You’re considered “old enough” to operate a huge, heavy, dangerous piece of machinery that can travel at high speeds, but otherwise, you’re still a “kid.”

Turning eighteen is another landmark. At that point, you are considered old enough to vote. You can be drafted (if there is a draft) or enlist in the armed forces. If faced with criminal procedings, you’ll be tried as an adult. In most states, you can marry without needing the permission of your parents.

When I was in college, eighteen was also when you were also considered old enough to legally drink alcohol. What type of alcohol varied from state to state. In some states, only beer and wine were permitted. In others, a person of the same age could drink “hard” alcohol as well.

So another mixed message was sent. You’re an adult with enormous social responsibilities and privileges. Or are you?

Today, twenty-one is the final age-related landmark. At this point, even the provision against drinking alcohol is removed. However, do most celebrate this landmark with a decorous glass? No. Increasingly, twenty-first birthdays are an excuse for the exact opposite, for wild and rowdy displays of excess.

So, it seems to me that we’ve lost something along with our coming of age rituals. We’ve lost a sense of becoming adults, of assuming responsibilities. Instead, what has happened is that these various age-markers have become excuses for the assumption of “rights.” The declaration is not “Now I am a man” or “From this day on, I am a woman,” but “Hey, you can’t stop me. I’m legal.”

What do you folks think? Are coming of age rituals out-dated? Still present, but in different forms? In need of ressurection as a custom?

Let me know! Your opinions could shape a future project.

15 Responses to “Coming of Age”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Interesting topic Jane!

    Don’t forget graduations and proms, although people keep trying to water those down by having simpler ones for younger students.

    But there are two other factors, both dealing with social focus. We have a multicultural society, where it’s possible for one girl to have a pagan first blood ceremony, while her friend down the block has a quinceanera a few years later while another has a bat mitzvah. A century ago, this wouldn’t have been possible: some of the ceremonies wouldn’t have existed, others would have been illegal or suppressed, depending on the jurisdiction. Perhaps they are less important for society as a whole, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

    Second, coming-of-age rituals are for the society, as well as for the individual. It’s worth flipping your viewpoint and looking at how society views changes in status. Society views these events primarily as individuals assuming risks and responsibilities. Driving, going to war, and being eligible for marriage are pretty universal.

    In our society, there are some interesting new coming-of-age ceremonies. Back when I was young, giving a child his or her first knife was a bit of a ritual. Now days, it’s a first phone, then his or her own computer, first credit card, then decreasing insurance premiums due to increasing ability to handle risk, and so forth.

    What’s also interesting about our society is that, we also systematically deprive our elders: they lose their licenses to drive, their insurance goes up, and finally, they may even lose control over their lives. In many societies, elders are venerated, because if they’ve survived so long, they must know something important. Nowdays, elders are outmoded, respected only for the money and power they’ve managed to amass, and there are a large number of schemes designed to deprive them of both.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I also wanted to pitch in another coming-of-age rite, lest we get too sentimental about the whole thing.

    This one came from a Chumash medicine woman. Yes, I was surprised too that they’re still around. I was even more surprised to find out her family had produced a state senator a generation ago.

    The Chumash gave their teenaged boys Datura (jimsonweed) as a coming-of-age ordeal. They spent six months training them: instruction, special diet, etc. Then the boys had to take Datura, which is a strong hallucinogen.

    The nasty thing about Datura is that it also relaxes smooth muscles, and it takes 8-12 hours to take full effect. If you overdose, you stop breathing.

    The danger with this plant is that it’s easy to overdose. Nothing happens, you think you haven’t taken enough, so you take some more. Then, when it takes full effect, you die.

    As the healer put it, “those children were ready to become adults and become responsible, productive members of society? They lived. Those who wanted to keep being children?”

    “Not so much.”

    I still think it’s harsh, but every time I get cut off by some teenaged driver, I do see the point.

    Feel free to pass on this story to any would-be teenaged “psychonaut” who hears about Datura and thinks it would be cool to try the plant.

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    Very interesting blog and comments.

    As an elder, I think that coming of age rituals used to involve the ability to accept responsibility. Nowadays it seems many folks, no matter their age, don’t want to accept responsibility. Hmmm one of today’s mass readings, the store of the serpent and the garden of Eden. No body wanted to take responsibility there either.

    So I vote for rituals with meaning and added responsibility, like graduating from a provisional driver’s license after the driver has shown the ability to exercise responsibility.

  4. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I really thought about this for a while before adding my 2 cents. In my opinion, coming of age rituals, whether today, 30 years ago, or 100 years ago, are only meaningful if the adults guiding the “maturation process” make that step into adulthood more real. For example, if you turn 16 and are allowed to drive, but you have to pay for half your gasoline, that’s “meaningful.” A responsibility accompanies the privilege. Back when I was a teenager, my older sister had a wonderful, intelligent, and friendly boyfriend who drove like a true maniac. It was not that he was not responsible in other ways… but he was not “mature” when it came to driving. I know other young adults today, in their early twenties, who hold full time jobs and pay their own expenses, but are not “mature” about how much they drink. Where does maturity come from? Where does taking responsibility come from… “the buck stops here…” as Barbara Joan commented? I don’t know for sure, but I have some gut reaction that it has something to do with older adults showing us what true responsibility and maturity is… and holding us to the same standard as we follow behind.

  5. Max Kaehn Says:

    I managed to get to all the functional aspects of adulthood years before any matching rite of passage, so they’ve always felt like meaningless formalities to me. The thing that actually felt like the biggest transition in life was when I got my own apartment that I paid for with the salary from my own job. I’d suggest the first head-of-household housewarming as significant, and first paycheck from the first job of your professional career.

  6. Emily McKinnie Says:

    It is an interesting topic. I’m a teen right now and I would like to have more of a ritual. Most parents give you responsiblities as you age and as you’re considered able to take them, but then there’s the kids who see aging as an excuse to party.

  7. Emily McKinnie Says:

    It is an interesting topic. I’m a teen right now and I would like to have more of a ritual. Most parents give you responsiblities as you age and as you’re considered able to take them, but then there’s the kids who see aging as an excuse to party.
    On the other hand, a coming of age ritual doesn’t make you instant-adult. Partly because kids have to mature gradually and partly because treating your children as children is a hard habit to break. I think they should have their place in society though because there would be less party going associated with age and more weight to it.

  8. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Emily, you’ve made an excellent point here. I come from a family with Italian heritage, and when I was young (I’m a mother of a 23 year old, to let you know just how OLD I am!), my Italian mother would let us children drink a mixture of water and wine at fancy dinners, big celebrations at home. We felt very grown up, very included, very much a part of the festivities. There came a point where I realized that I really didn’t ENJOY drinking wine and water as much as I enjoyed drinking my milk with dinner… but it was MY choice. Because drinking was not made a big deal in our house, my older sibling and I never really “longed” to be old enough to “party.” When we were old enough to drink, we could if we wanted to, and drinking was not a rite of passage for us. You are very wise for your years!

  9. Max Kaehn Says:

    My stepdad took the trouble to show me what good beer tasted like when I was 15, and that one should take the time to appreciate it. So I never wound up in the “guzzling the cheap stuff and ignoring the taste” crowd when my peers joined it.

  10. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, I got straight beer when I was younger: in a shot glass or tablespoon. Taking the mystique and glamor out of alcohol seems to be a widespread tradition.

    As for coming of age ceremonies, it’s got to be in context. In a Bar Mitzvah, it isn’t just a ceremony, it’s years of learning Hebrew so that you can read the torah in front of the synagogue. With driving, there’s all that time with the learner’s permit. With graduation, there’s a lot of school that should come before you get the sheepskin.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    You folks are AWESOME…

    You’ve really given me a lot to think about. I really liked that the responses came from teenagers up to self-confessed “elders.”

    I should note that there have been other responses, too, but these shyer folks tend to email me via my website.

    Heteromeles gets especial thanks for thoughtfully addressing this from all sorts of perspectives — coming age in context of culture, of eliminating the stupid, and, most of all, that it should include some sort of training so that it feels “real.”

    The comment on graduation and “a lot of school” hit one on my pet peeves: kindergarten graduation ceremonies!

    I hope folks will keep comments coming as they occur. I do check “older” posts on a regular basis.

  12. Chad Cloman Says:

    I remember one other “coming of age” milestone. For single men, age 25 is when your car insurance rates go down.

    No, seriously. I remember joking about it, that after age 25 you didn’t have any birthdays to look forward to until you reach retirement age.

  13. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I meant to say, earlier, that Heteromeles’s comment about the Datura ritual struck a strong chord with me. It’s healthy to do away with rituals and traditions that are dangerous and negative. It’s positive to move away from beliefs and traditions that are oppressive. Heteromeles’s insight and information made me think about China, where girl babies are abandoned and put up for adoption ~ or worse ~ because of the traditional desire for a male child.

  14. Heteromeles Says:

    Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the datura ritual.

    Which is more humane: giving a kid a car for his 16th birthday, only to have him kill himself and a friend in an underage drunk driving accident (as happened to, at last count, four people I know), or have him die alone with Datura?

    That’s a hard, hard call.

    To me, the important part was (is?) the seriousness with which the Chumash used this plant, and how that contrasts with Datura’s present use now as a “recreational drug.”

    Old Woman Momoy (as they call Datura) was part of Chumash culture, and they gave her enormous respect. But they reportedly only took the plant three or four times during their lives: when they were faced with momentous changes such as coming of age, before marriage, near death, and during spiritual crises. They knew Momoy could kill, but they valued the experience too much to give her up.

  15. janelindskold Says:

    I suppose I shouldn’t mention, but I have a couple of very nice datura plants growing in my yard…

    It’s a common enough weed out here.

    Doing away with “dangerous” traditions… Sounds good on the surface, but unless there is a major cultural change, often a worse problem is created.

    The British in India were horrified by the tradition of “sutee” (various spelling available) where a widow was burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. However, the fate of those widow in a society that had no idea what to do with them was worse.

    Kipling’s novel KIM has a relatively gentle portrayal of one such woman — and she was among the lucky ones.

    The Chinese did not expose female babies with great regularity until the coming of the “one child” policy in relatively modern times. A male child remained part of the family and could take care of the ancestors (and was required to take care of his parents and older relatives).

    Thus families were faced with the horrible choice — expose or sell a beloved female baby or see the family, from distant past all the way through the present without any form of support in old age and after death. (Remember, this is a culture that arranges weddings for children who die before marrying — they take the afterlife seriously).

    Never simple.

    In the modern United States, many elderly people die “warehoused” in old age homes because of the lack of any set loyalty in-bred into the culture.

    Never simple.

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