Adolescents need a rite of passage to ease them into adulthood
Sadly, some young people join gangs. We need to devise a ritual to help them through this difficult transition.
An intriguing organisation called A Band of Brothers has been in touch with me. They seek to provide rites of passage for alienated young men – often involved in gang life – by giving them male mentors and separating them from the community for a given period to instil confidence and promote emotional intelligence. This is seen as an urgent task. As the website states: “If the fires that innately burn inside young men are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of the culture.”
I have only daughters, but this is not just a male issue. Men may join gangs, but the violence girls do to themselves in adolescence – self-harming and self-starving, for example – is equally problematic. We also have no secular rites of passage within families for girls to mark, say, their first menses, or for boys to mark the signs of physical maturity. Yet this idea of marking the passage from child to adult, has appeared in all cultures at all times in history. Even though the secular community has little to offer the soul in transition, the need has not gone away. It has just become private rather than public.
Once, for boys, there would be separation from the community, transition and reincorporation. Ordeals would be undergone in which bravery and endurance would be tested – perhaps through scarification or ritual marking, or being sent to cope with the wilderness alone.
More recently, boys were sent into the military. My father often told me that he entered the navy as a boy, age 16, and emerged as a man two years later. He was always grateful for this forced enlistment. He certainly never had any problems in thinking about himself as a man after that.
In traditional societies, the rite of passage for girls might be separation from the male community for a period, to be mentored by wise women. Or it might involve the brutality of genital mutilation, an act of personal violation that can only now be interpreted as a form of abuse.
I am not suggesting that we return to any of those traditions. Apart from the intrinsic violence of some of these rituals, our society is too individualistic, too atomised – there is not enough consensus about what values are to be passed on to our children.
Some rites of passage do still exist. My daughter Eva, 11, has just gone from primary to secondary school, and this is clearly marked – for instance by the adoption of a uniform, having to find her own way to school and so on. Likewise, my two elder daughters are at university and will have the fact of their own living space to mark the change. There may be driving tests, or certificates gained. But these happen to happen and are not a societal ritual.
Lacking these rituals, youths have taken the task on themselves. At an extreme, teenage girls may prove their fertility by getting pregnant, and teenage boys may demonstrate their manhood by ritualised violence through gang warfare. Both sexes will be liable to mark themselves out by their clothing and by forms of scarification, such a tattoos or piercings.
We cannot turn back the clock. But the fundamental need to have our passages in life marked cannot be erased. Slap on the veneer of civilisation as much as you like, and blur the line between male and female as much as you find convenient, but these urges remain with us and need somehow to be addressed – not just privately, but at a wider level. A Band of Brothers has shown a possible way to reduce violence among boys. Perhaps a “Sorority of Sisters” might cut rates of teenage pregnancy, self-harm and anorexia.
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