Coming of Age in the Land of What-everrr

Without a deliberate approach to adulthood, we're kinda stuck learning the hard way.

Without a deliberate approach to adulthood, we’re kinda stuck learning the hard way.

The other day I made a birthday cake for a fictional character.

Well, it was an important one! The heroine of my novel was turning 21. On the 21st. Her Golden Birthday.

Only as I was mixing the batter did I realize I had very nearly made my character into my son’s twin. His 21st birthday was the day before. The age was NOT intentional; my character began her life a couple of years younger. I only aged her, using my godlike powers critical judgement, after realizing the plot worked better that way.

The DAY of her birth, however, was no accident. I chose Summer Solstice on purpose for its symbolic value to the story.

And that got me thinking. Because here on the island where I live, a small part of the community offers teenagers–16, 17, 18–the chance to have a real coming-of-age ceremony on the Summer Solstice. I don’t know much about it yet, since I moved here after my kids left for college, but from what I’ve heard, it’s serious stuff. The kids choose a mentor for themselves, a sort of sponsor, who spends time throughout the year having conversations about what it means to be a man or a woman. Then the teen writes his or her own part of the ceremony, and shares it with a group of 100 community members on the longest night of the year. (The number is strictly limited to 100.) The whole ceremony takes place on a smaller, remote island over the course of a few days, and involves community cooking, music-making, and soaking-up of nature.

To me that sounds WONDERFUL. More than that, it sounds like what so many kids in our society need.

If you’re Jewish, you can have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. If you’re Catholic, you can be Confirmed. If you’re a girl of Mexican heritage, there’s the Quinceanera. Most Native American tribes and bands have important rites, and I’m pretty sure Amish kids have something. But these ceremonies are limited by faith and/or ethnic membership–we can’t all participate. And we all know the faith-based ones are often (sorry, God) less meaningful to the kid than the community would hope. PLUS…they can be pretty darn EXPENSIVE.

Life requires important benchmarks.Life requires important benchmarks.

What coming-of-age ceremony is there for that American kid who wasn’t raised in a religious or ethnic tradition, or doesn’t find that tradition meaningful?

Here’s what that kid is left with: Getting a drivers license. And…getting legally drunk.

When my husband called my son to wish him a Happy 21st Birthday, he jokingly said into the phone, “How many fingers am I holding up?” Of COURSE you go out drinking when you turn 21 in America, right? What other benchmarks of adulthood do we have?

courtesy Pinterest

(courtesy someecards)

So am I missing something? Graduation? First hunting trip? What do you think of when you think of Coming of Age in America? Do you think our society suffers as a result of not moving kids more deliberately into adulthood? What kind of ceremony might we adopt?

I love hearing from y’all!

10 thoughts on “Coming of Age in the Land of What-everrr

  1. Great post Gretchen! I think in todays society, especially, we are setting our kids up a rude awakening. We bubble wrap our kids so they don’t have to deal with any kind of emotional pain and in doing so we fail to prepare them for the real word. I heard someone call it “the woosification” of America. Not far from the truth in my opinion.

    I love the coming of age thing you mention!

  2. LOL – summer solstice has the shortest night, longest day. Winter solstice is the longest night, shortest day. I laughed because I made the same mistake and had to correct it in my blog post after I’d published it.

    That said – I heard on NPR a piece on ritual. How, when they gave two groups a chocolate bar, they told the first group to break the chocolate in two before unwrapping it. Then they could eat the first half, then unwrap the second half and eat it. The second group could eat the chocolate bar any way they wanted. What they found was, ritual – the following directions – made the candy bar taste better for the first group, even though it was the same type of candy bar that the second group had.

    Me? I love ritual.

    Regarding the kids and license/drunk thing, I think that totally depends on the parents. My kids? Their “growing up” was riding their bikes to jr. high a mile away; the second ritual was going to college during the summers while they were still in high school. My eldest didn’t get a driver’s license until he was almost 22; my youngest got his at 19 only because he’d lined up a summer job. A lot of their friends haven’t been getting licenses until they’re out of high school and don’t have a choice.

    As for drinking, neither of them finds it attractive. I guess they have seen their parents get sloppy one too many times. (Sigh – at least we drink at home, lol…)

    So in my opinion – it depends a lot on the parents. And the kids’ peers. I will say one ritual we have that we still participate in (the kids still live at home) – dinner every night, together. When we’re all together, it’s music and candlelight and conversation. If there’s one or more missing for whatever reason, the other two plus still sit together, but we’re more likely to read at dinner.

    Okay, this is a long comment, lol! But it was a great post.


    • I really appreciate this reply, Christine. It seems to be a topic that touches a lot of emotions: hope, regret, intrigue, amusement (whoops, better fix that longest/shortest day boo-boo too!)…

  3. “Getting a drivers license. And…getting legally drunk”. Yeah, those are about all I can think of besides the religious and ethnic rites of passage. For me, it was joining the Navy. I believe for many who sign up, the instant responsibility you are given in the military launches you into adulthood quickly. You’re right though, teens need a definitive ceremony, event, or some kind of figurative portal they pass through.

    • Yeah, I should have added the military. Especially now that this stage–although I can’t exactly call it a ceremony–is now available to young women. Thanks for the thought, Dave.”Figurative portal” is the exact image I was looking for.

  4. I was lucky. My boys never got into the drinking. Of course they tried it but didn’t like it. When I turned 21 I was proud to show my ID showing I was of drinking age. Now I’m just flattered. How things change with age.

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