My daughter Ella and son Salem
“The Transcendence of Childhood” Ceremony
There is an age-old tradition of entrance into the new stage of life about the age of 12-13 (that is often, but not always, evidenced by the onset of puberty). Different cultures (and different epochs) have different features and nuances of this transition, but there are universals that permeate the differences. These universals become distinct when we come to understand the whole process of maturation, and come to understand how the transcendence of the childhood is a necessity in becoming a real adult.
It therefore behooves us to survey a host of coming-of-age ceremonies and observances AND to come to a nuanced and discriminative understanding about the process of true human maturation. In such an enlightening view, we can make sense of the Judaic Bar Mitzvah, a Catholic Confirmation, the tests of the primitive cultures, and the golden thread of the Brahmans.
This “transcendence of childhood” has many historical and cultural manifestations, and all of them illuminate something about this transition. They highlight what this transition is, what it becomes, and what it is NOT.
While this transition is often aligned to the onset of puberty, the transition is not reduced to the gross dimension! And the fact that the first menses can happen over a wide range of ages underscores the distinction between the cycles of the body and the emergence of a new phase of life.
Where the first 6-7 years of life are focused in the body and simple autonomy, and the second phase (7ish-13ish) is focused in feelings and sensitivity to energy and belonging, the teen years are focused in mind and consequent will. Where the first stage loves magic and fairy tales, the second stage uses myths to augment comprehension, but teens need logic and principles for understanding. Thus “Bar Mitzvah” means “son/daughter of the commandment”, much like the Brahmic thread signifies understanding the scriptures and that a boy or girl is mature enough to understand his or her responsibility towards family and society. Likewise, in the Catholic ceremony the sacrament of Confirmation is available to those youth who have reached “the age of discretion” and have the ability to understand the laws of God.
With understanding comes will. Thus we see many rituals, particularly amongst native peoples, that test the young people with acts of heroism or enduring pain. Youths must demonstrate a strong will over their reflexive automaticities for comfort, need, and consolation.
Often there are isolation rituals, death-rebirth ceremonies, and the symbolic or actual leaving of the parental home/care to being a member of larger society, often with mentoring.
It is worthy to note that “adult” is the past perfect participle of “adolescence”. You are an adult when adolescence is perfectly past [gulp]. And it is also worthy to note that the etymological roots of “adolescence” is “nurturing, ripening”, meaning that “adult” is one who is indeed nurtured and ripe. So adolescence is rightly seen as a ripening time of “trial adulthood” where the youth comes to understand, apply the will, and grow to the harmony that is befitting an adult. Thus we find in the Thai language terms for the end of adolescence that roughly translate as “cooked”, “finished”, or “cooled off”.
So what does this mean in a modern society?
I would offer that many of these provincial features can be adapted for secular and intelligent application. At the heart of it, we must empower our offspring with “the transcendence of childhood.” Teens are in a precarious position: they are no longer children (and we should NOT treat them as such) AND they are not yet “ripe” or adults (and we should not treat them as such either). This means we must abandon the usual parental ROLE and empower them to create and co-create their freedoms and co-responding responsibilities. We need NOT have them leave home as in the traditional setting, but we must honor the intelligence of such a radical move by radically changing our roles, AND letting them find and choose a mentor to arbitrate any disagreements. We must explicitly and loudly renounce “mommy and daddy” roles and the usual “my house, my rules” pronouncements. They WILL be leaving soon; it is best to make their leaving a conscious and gradual transition rather than a reactive rejection and break.
To ritually serve this transition, it is helpful and useful to have an actual ceremony (a fire is good), designed by the youth, where the parents explicitly relinquish/symbolically burn their previous pattern, and the youth relinquishes/symbolically burns her/his childishness AND takes on the mantel of “trial adulthood”. Critical to this is 1) the understanding (by all parties) of the process of maturation (See “What is it to really grow up?”); 2) the youth selects a mentor to whom both they and the parents agree to live by their assessment if any disagreement arises; 3) the youth makes lists of desired freedoms, responsibilities, and consequences. By these three critical features EVERYONE understands the youth has a new kind of autonomy and all are invested in serving the responsibility of the teen.
The parents must change from telling the child “how it is” or even making agreements with the child to consistently asking for the youth's understanding. “What do you think?” A mutuality of respect emerges and failures become opportunities for confession, vulnerability, and mutual acceptance. Lingering in old patterns gives birth to seemingly intractable problems, where we confuse personal problems for structural ones. In other words, when we update our pattern with our updated offspring, many of the old patterns begin to fall away. Of course, if out-dated patterns are entrenched, undesirable behaviors easily arise and may take some time to re-set.
In any case, we must cleave to our new situation with new patterns. This is best supported by detailed and nuanced understanding of the process of maturation altogether, with specific attention to the processes of childhood and what real human maturity can be. Click to download: “What is it to really grow up?”
Empowered by the acuity of understanding the developmental process, we can realistically adjust to the new situation that our child is now a new person, and is adapting to a new level of responsibility (from which new freedoms are appropriate). The reaction rituals of the teen years ARE NOT necessary. If we release our children (into a greater context and embrace), they need not feel trapped and nor reject us (as parents) in order to feel free to be who they are.
One feature that is very important to comprehend: the change in the "background mood". In the first two stages of childhood, there is a background mood of dependence: "Momma, can I...." With adolescence, the youth have not moved merely onto the mood of independence, but rather occilate between dependence and independence. For example: "I've got my own car, I'm going ___________, but can I have some money for petrol?" Thus, this occilation gives rise in the teen years to the background mood not of dependence nor independence but rather of dilemma. This is very important to understand, both by the teen and by the parents. For a full elaboration of the furies of dilemma, doubt, and depression, please see “What is it to really grow up?”
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To watch my video of "What is it to really grow up?" (suitable for ages 10 and up ;) 105 minutes, 23$), click HERE