By the time young people reach high school, they’re launched on that phase of personal growth we call adolescence. It’s a ten- or twelve-year journey in which a boy can become a man and a girl can become a woman. I say “can” because this growth is much more than physical. All of the survivors of adolescence will grow up physically. But many will begin adult life unprepared, weak, immature or damaged.
Adolescence is a perilous time. As teenagers push for more independence, they experiment with identities, trying to find out who they are. Because the decision-making part of their brain is “under construction,” it’s hard for them to foresee consequences, control impulses and use good judgment.
So bad things can happen. Family conflict and a breakdown of communication. Truancy and declining academic performance. Vandalism and breaking the law. Bullying. Risk-taking and thrill-seeking. Gangs. Unprotected sex and unwanted teen pregnancy. Depression. Suicide. Alcohol and drug abuse.
Even the young people who are able to dodge most of these perils can show up at the workplace missing the values, work habits and skills that employers need.
Primitive cultures had extremely effective rites of passage structures to transform young people into the kind of adults the community needed. In our time, only remnants of these rites exist.
The bottom line: young people today are mostly on their own as they to try to figure out what it means to be a man or a woman. Without the kind of guidance that has mostly vanished from our culture, youth almost always get it wrong.
I know this description of adolescence sounds depressing. The truth is, many parents are consciously learning how to build a bridge of communication with their teen, and they’re doing smart things to prepare their kids for the challenges of adult life.
And there are people like Tim Wright, pastor of the Community of Grace congregation in Peoria, Arizona, who is working earnestly to create rites of passage programs appropriate to the youth and culture of our time. To date he has facilitated four such programs for 14-year-old boys, called “Following Jesus: A Heroic Quest for Boys.” He has also developed a similar program for girls: “Following Jesus: A Wisdom Journey for Girls.” The programs provide Christian “confirmation” experiences, which are similar to the Jewish “Bar-Mitzvan” and “Bat-Mitzvah” traditions.
Wright sees rites of passage not as single events, but as part of an ongoing effort to mentor youth throughout adolescence. To achieve this, he is designing a new “marking the moment” program for 16-year-olds. He also envisions other follow-up marking programs for youth in the later stages of adolescence.
To reach beyond his congregation, he and author Michael Gurian have created resource kits to share their model with other communities. Their work is a part of a growing trend to replace what has been lost by creating modern rites of passage. Some programs are helping schools to adopt rites of passage. One book, Boy into Man, by Bernard Weiner, describes how parents can band together to create an effective rite of passage experience for their kids. Another book, The Thundering Years, by Julie Tallard Johnson, tries to empower the youth themselves to create their own rituals.
Parents who care need solutions like these. For more information about what’s happening at the Community of Grace, check out TimWrightMinistries.org. As I discover more innovative resources like as this one, I pin them to my Pinterest Board, Rites of Passage for Youth.