What Ever Happened to “Rites of Passage”?

by Lon Woodbury on November 21, 2013

I had the opportunity to interview Patrick Barrasso, Founder of In Balance Continuum of Care, AZ, and Molly McGinn, Founder of BloomTree Learning Communities and Treehouse Learning Community, AZ on the topic of ‘Rites of Passage’ lately. Both of them use the concept of Rites of Passage in their work with young people and have studied extensively what it is and how/why it works.

Essentially, a Rite of Passage is a marker and experience signifying and proving their readiness for life as an adult.  It is a significant life change and provides meaning to the young person in that he/she has made the transition to adulthood.  The same principles apply to other significant life changes like a graduation, a marriage, etc. but the most important and very deep need in all humans is overcoming the challenge of entrance to adulthood.

My take-away from the interview was there are many other elements that are part of a legitimate, serious Rite of Passage that I had never considered as a significant part of a Rite of Passage.

One important element is a ceremony.  A public recognition of the accomplishment of the young person standing before their community would be a part of the processing of the experience and brings home the meaning of the Rite of Passage experience to everybody.  It acknowledges the fact of a death of the old childhood and beginning or birth of the adult.  In our society we have retained a lot of ceremonies, but those by themselves often are just a recognition of becoming eligible for some entitlement, something entirely different than a Rite of Passage.

A proper Rite of Passage includes an element of at least a perceived risk.  That is, there is the possibility of failure.  In this sense, it is a test of the readiness of the young person to make the transition to adulthood by overcoming adult challenges.  This flies in the face of the direction of mainstream society which seems to be endeavoring to become a risk free society.  Our society is filled with what is called “helicopter parents,” and “snowplow parents” and all kinds of laws and customs to protect children and these tend to strive to eliminate all discomfort for the child.  By not being allowed to stand or fall on their own, children living in a risk-free environment are missing out on a vital preparation for adulthood.

The Hero’s Journey is often a specific element of a Rite of Passage.  Made popular by Joseph Campbell, it is a very popular part of movies, video games and literature, but in real life it seems to just be assumed that by gaining in years the young person will become an adult without the messiness of a quest, transition, and triumph.

Taking on responsibilities at a very early age provides the foundation and experience that prepares the young person for transition into adulthood.  Without the experience of taking on responsibilities and contributing to their community, the young person will likely be poorly prepared for a successful transition into adulthood, with or without a Rite of Passage.  Instead, our society has gone the route of protecting our young from discomfort, risk and potential of failure through child labor laws and extending adolescence to later and later ages.

Also, one of the best ways to prepare for that transition to adulthood is to learn how to earn what they get.  As time has passed, we seem to expect parents to give children what they want and we have situations of children going to college, obtaining cars and all kinds of popular electronics without doing anything to earn them.  Instead of earning them, the expectation on the part of young people tends to be that they are entitled to all that.  Where it was common for young people to sacrifice to pay their own way through college, it is now expected instead that the parents will make those sacrifices so their children can go the University of the child’s choice on the parents’ dime.

Overcoming  challenges is key to the self-respect of an adult.  All Rites of Passage include this.  However, all too often, challenges young people face make them uncomfortable (which is part of what is needed) so instead adults step in to save them from the challenge, depriving the young people from that critical accomplishment.

Meaning underlies all accomplishment.  The most common way to help the child understand the meaning of what they have undergone is through a specific ceremony.  This is an important processing step and without it the young person might just figure that they went through hard times with no self-affirming realization and most of the value will be lost.

Mentoring by elders is key.  When the adults act like adults and guide and help the youth through the experience and the adults have designed the experience well, then it can be a real experience and have a deep impact.  This is as opposed to some contrived test where the youth’s experience is not very meaningful and the only test is if the youth can figure out what the adults want them to do.  Some challenge from nature is generally the best because nature just is and overcoming a challenge from nature is by itself a very valuable experience and there is no human arbitrary influence.   A challenge coming from humans tends to require manipulation, a challenge coming from nature is about as real as it can get.

The interesting summary was at the end when the question was “What would happen if our society developed and widely adopted a true challenging Rite of Passage.”  The answer was for this to ever happen, the adults would have to grow up and act like adults, mentoring the young and providing the elements mentioned above on a long term and consistent basis.  My question is, if we could do this, what would the world look like?  I think we would have fewer problems, fewer confused souls, and a more peaceful and productive society.


The full interview titled “What Ever Happened to ‘”Rites of Passage”? with Patrick Barrasso and Molly McGinn can be heard at LATalkRadio.com.

For a complete archive of Woodbury Reports articles, go to www.strugglingteens.com.


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1 Traci S. January 10, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I saw a really good presentation on this topic from an all-boy program in Oregon. The program had a class where the therapist guided the boys in writing their own mythical “hero’s journey” story incorporating their own personal past traumas.
Here is a link to a little article I wrote about young adult children coming home for holidays, and how that is a rite of passage in a way.

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