Rites of Passage

Suggestions for videos and classroom questions to discuss coming-of-age and rites of passage

In my Adolescence class we just discussed social transitions, and the rites of passage that adolescents go through to “achieve” adulthood. While I encourage students to consider cultural diversity throughout the semester, I find it especially useful to encourage students to compare and contrast various rites of passage from around the world with the transition to adulthood here in the U.S.  I started by having students brainstorm (in small groups) rites of passage, or events, that mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood in our culture. Ideas included graduation, turning a certain age (16, 18, or 21), getting a driver’s license, and moving out on their own (i.e., no longer living with parents). Religious and culturally specific ceremonies, such as Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Quinceaneras were also mentioned. I asked them to think about what the key features of these events are, and to what degree they are universal in our country.

I then showed the students some example rites of passage from other cultures. National Geographic has some great footage of various cultural ceremonies, some of which are publicly available. For example, there is a good clip of an Apache girl’s coming of age ceremony, and the different rites of passage for a girl and a boy in Benin, West Africa.

After analyzing these examples, I led the class in a group discussion comparing and contrasting the ceremonies in our culture with those of other cultures. I encouraged them to think about the defining characteristics of each, and what effects those characteristics had on the adolescents becoming adults. Many interesting points came up, more than I could mention here, but I will describe a few of the highlights.

First, my students talked about how the adolescents in other cultures seemed to have to work to earn adulthood, while they felt that wasn’t true in the U.S. Some students felt that adulthood would come to an American adolescent no matter what they did, while others felt there was some work that went into it, but all agreed that there was not a substantial chance of failure in the U.S. (as opposed to the ceremony in Benin where one boy won, and one lost). Moreover, students noticed that the preparation for adulthood in other cultures was specific and expected of all, while preparation varies wildly in the U.S.

Secondly, students identified a stark difference in the involvement of the community in the ceremonies in other cultures vs the U.S. In the examples we viewed, many members of the communities were involved in different aspects of the ceremonies, were there to witness the event, and even decided the “winner” in some cases. Moreover, students identified the pride and rejoicing that the communities expressed when one of their members achieved adulthood—unlike the somewhat negative attitude they identified in our culture about the transition to adulthood.

Finally, students discussed the fact that in the U.S. we do not have one universal ceremony to mark adulthood, nor do we even have clear and universal achievements and/or qualities that are necessary for adulthood. The students were aware of this at the beginning of this discussion, but it became much clearer when they systematically compared and contrasted our process with those of other cultures. In addition, it prompted the students to think in more depth about the effect that this individualized, discontinuous, and ambiguous transition has on contemporary emerging adults in our culture.

by Renée Peltz Dennison