Rite of passage ceremonies for adolescents have increasingly become a thing of the past. But several meaningful coming-of-age observances are still holding their own, and even experiencing a resurgence.
I learned this, as I learn so many things, while holding a Socrates Cafe, on this occasion with members of a Multicultural Club for youth. It convenes in the greater metropolitan glop of Phoenix, Arizona.
My wife Ceci and I once lived in the area; she was a literacy instructor, and I held Socratic dialogues in some coffee houses and schools, including the one where this group was formed. Whenever I'm back, I have an open invitation here to facilitate a Socrates Cafe. We are examining the question, "What are the best traditions?"
"The best traditions help you feel more connected -- with the past, the present, the future, with yourself, even with your society," says Hisa, whose family came here from Osaka, Japan, two years ago after his father was brought aboard to steer an information technology firm.
"In Japan, we have a national tradition called Seigin no Hi, which means 'Coming of Age Day.' It welcomes youth into the world of adulthood. But it's also supposed to help us realize that now that we're adults, a lot of new responsibilities and opportunities come with that," he tells us.
"The Seigin no Hi was started by a young prince in 715 AD, and it became an officially established tradition by the government in 1948. Government officials give speeches, they hand out gifts, they talk about the importance of responsible adulthood to society."
Hisa thinks some more. "I suppose, though, if it were a really 'best tradition,' more would take part in it each year, rather than less. My older brother, 23 now, didn't attend when he turned 20. I guess it's because he's still more child than adult. My father still completely supports him."
Ana Paola, whose family originally is from Oaxaca, Mexico, now says, "If a measuring stick of 'best tradition' is increased participation over the years, then maybe the Latino tradition of quinceañera - which means 'one who is fifteen' -- fits the bill. It began in Aztec times. Over the centuries, it became a celebration attached to Catholics in Mexico. Then it spread to other Latino countries, and now people have them even if they're not Catholic."
"These days," Ana Paola goes on, "wherever Latinos live throughout the world, quinceañeras are held. Latinos form strong communities wherever they've had to go in the world to find work. The quinceañera is 'best' as a tradition because it shows how loving and devoted we are to one another and how much we appreciate our culture.
"Quinceañeras can be really elaborate, even if your family doesn't have a lot of money, because everyone chips in. They celebrate a 15-year-old girl's formal introduction into society. Family, friends, relatives, godfathers, they all commit to sponsoring a certain part of the celebration."
"This is also a 'best tradition' for us as individuals," my wife Ceci now chimes in. "It shows all the love and support for us in a difficult time of transition - not just biologically; we're also getting closer to deciding what to do with our lives."
Ana Paola nods in agreement. "It's not easy being a 15-year-old teen, much less a 15-year-old Latina teen. So many expectations, by others and of yourself."
After the dialogue comes to an end, several Native American teens stay on. They talk softly back and forth. Then they approach me and my wife.
"We'd like to share a tradition that we consider 'best,'" says Kai. "We didn't want to discuss it in front of everyone else. It's private - personal -- not something we're really comfortable talking about in a big group."
Kai goes on to say, "All of us here are going back to the Navajo reservation this weekend. My family is holding a traditional coming of age ceremony - the kinaalda -- in my honor. Desbah and Bina are coming with me. Desbah's kinaalda was last June. Bina returned for her coming of age ceremony before we became best friends, or I'd have gone there to be with her."
"A kinaalda is a four-day ceremony held after your first menstrual cycle. It's a tradition as old as the Navajo people themselves. According to our traditional beliefs, Changing Woman, our female deity, performed the first kinaalda when she reached puberty. It's what made her able to have children. Ever since, by traditional belief, all Navajo girls must take part in this ceremony after their first menstrual cycle, not only so they can bear children, but also, like Changing Woman, so they can help nurture and sustain - be mothers to -- all sacred life on earth.
"I don't believe in this story literally. But I believe in what it stands for. It honors Navajo women, and one of the most difficult and confusing and beautiful and exciting transitions -- from girlhood to womanhood. So that makes it 'best,' to me"
Desbah then says, "I didn't used to think much of Navajo traditions. To me, they were reminders of who we once were but aren't anymore. Mrs. Begay, one of my teachers, is Navajo. I told her that I had had my first menstruation, and that my family wanted me to return to the rez with them so they could have a traditional kinaalda for me. I said I didn't want to go. First, my mom hugged me real tight. Then she said she didn't take part in a kinaalda, and she'd always regretted it.
"My mom told me that it's hard always to feel like you're between two worlds - the world of childhood and womanhood, but also between the traditional world and the modern world. She left the reservation to be part of a different world. But she discovered that you while you can leave the tribe, maybe it doesn't always leave you. And maybe, she said, you don't want it to leave you all the way. Ceremonial traditions like the kinaalda can be 'best' because they're kind of a bridge between one world and another."
"At my coming of age ceremony," she tells me, "I was put through centuries-old tests of strength, endurance, and character that, according to our traditional beliefs, will make you a strong and beautiful woman. I also experienced moments that will be beautiful memories forever - like when they took a mold of my body, and there was then a sacred chant around my 'woman body.'"
"Nearly all my relatives attended," she says next. "Relatives I hadn't seen since they'd relocated to places like Los Angeles and Seattle and Santa Fe were there. That's a big part of what made it best for me,, that it meant so much to my relatives from faraway places to be part of it that they made the trip."
"My mother and grandmother know better than to force me to do anything," she then says. "The more they try, the more I resist. I'm glad they let me decide about it one way or the other on my own. They were shocked when I told them that I wanted to have the ceremony. My mother tried not to show how happy she was."
Kai now says, "Some of the Navajo guys make fun of us for being part of this. They don't want to have anything to do with traditions. They don't want reminders of traditions that single them out as different from the mainstream. But who wants to be like everyone else? Isn't being a teen all about being a non-conformist?"
Then she says, "I still have my differences with my mom and grandmother, but now, they're more differences between one woman and another, differences based more on respect."
And then: "This ceremony helped me think about what it means to be a woman, and about the woman I want to become. I still see this time in my life as one of experimentation. I mean, I'm still a teen after all. But I won't do destructive kinds of experimentation."
Then her friend Desbah says, "The best traditions don't reject the modern world; they make it more meaningful, more worthwhile."
Rites of Passage and the Coming, and Going, of Age
Adolescents first came to widespread attention in U.S. at the cusp of the 19th century, with the psychologist G. Stanley Hall's landmark study, Adolescence, in which he reported the results of a comprehensive study he conducted. Hall concluded that adolescents were an aberration, a threat to an established society - inherently rebellious bundles of raging hormones who experienced tremendous "storm and stress" because they were so conflicted, and under no circumstances could be left to their own devices or chaos would ensue, because their declaration of independence was not for the greater good of society, but its greater detriment.
Hall developed a set of "pedagogical imperatives" to tackle head on what he considered our nation's problematic youth.
But are adolescents any more problematic than adults, or children? Adolescence today is considered a transitional stage, and those coming of age ceremonies that still exist recognize this. But aren't all stages of life transitional in their way?
Surely adults can play an extreely important role in the development of children and youth. And they can help see to it that the transition to the next stage is as meaningful and lacking in trauma (though perhaps not drama) as possible. Have adults done a very good or conscientious job at this?
Margaret Mead, in Coming of Age in Samoa, showed that not all adolescents experience anything resembling a "storm and stress" phase. In Samoan culture, as Mead described it, adults gave adolescents room and space to work out the changes they were experiencing without judgment or pressure, and they were much more liberal on matters of sexuality. As a result, Samoan adolescents were a tranquil lot, showing that societies in which adolescents did experience great conflict was due to their culture and upbringing.
What about the vaunted identity crisis, the marker of all markers when it comes to adolescence?
it is my experience, in the hundreds of dialogues I've held with adolescents, that no one is more open and honest and piercing than than they are when it comes to investigating questions such as: Who am I? Who can I become? What do I want to be when I grow up? It behooves the rest of us, at every age and stage, to hold inquiries on such questions with them, so we can be privy to their keen insights.
In How We Think, the philosopher John Dewey asserted that adolescence brought with it the advent of keener thought and reason, and that with these capacities came "an enlargement of the horizon of childhood, a susceptibility to larger concerns and issues, a more generous and a more general standpoint toward nature and social life."
What if all stages of life entailed such an enlargement of childhood's horizons? What if that were the end in life, not to 'advance' to adulthood, but perpetually deepen and expand one's childlike but by no means childish existential and imaginative lenses?
What happens when we become adults and this enlargement of the horizons of childhood shrinks and shrinks? There are exceptions, but the rule seems to be that adults are not so comfortable with endless horizons as are the young, adolescents in particular, as if having a firm foundation means narrowing one's sights.
(Note: To protect the privacy of participants in my dialogues, when I write about them, some names and other identifiers have been changed.)