To age, grow, transform; & proving it

Our Culture Editor investigates the World view on the coming of age

By Janine s White: Culture Editor

The celebrations have begun, the balloons are flying, the cake is the centrepiece and you are the focus of attention. Each person within the room is congratulating you for reaching a new milestone, for achieving adulthood. Yesterday falling asleep a child, this morning awaking a grown up.

It is phenomenal that something so miraculous occurred during the night. Those few hours of sleep adapted your mind and body into a new form. Suddenly, going from being 6573 days old to 6574. Within that space of time, new abilities and perceptions developed to provide enough responsibility to vote for the next Prime Minister. Morals cultivated to the point that you can serve on a jury and make decisions about the culpability of those accused of dangerous crimes. Emotional regulation adapted to master films that are rated over 18, with a first legal alcoholic drink in hand. Or did it? According to neuroscientists the pre-frontal cortex, which controls impulsive behaviour, does not fully develop until the age of 25 years. There are conditions and practices that can speed up the development of the brain, including allowing the child to use their senses when interacting with the world. This interaction can be observed in many cultures.

In Australia, male children, aged between ten and sixteen go Walkabout. They wonder out into the wilderness alone, with nothing but the spirits to guide and nurture them. Up to six months later they return to their community a man, welcomed, acknowledged and valued. Knowing that they have proven their transformation into maturity.

In Brazil, the Satere-Mawe tribe practise the bullet ant initiation. To demonstrate their transition from adolescence into manhood, these insects are sedated and turned into gloves, with their stingers facing inwards towards the hands. Upon the insects waking, they are angry and the first thing they do is sting. The soon to be warriors must keep the gloves on for at least 10 minutes. The longer the individual can last, and the endurance of the pain, equates to a readiness for adulthood. These brave entities are greeted into the adult world, esteemed. They have accomplished a painful conversion that has led to their inner makeover.

Amish cultures have Rumspringa. A weekend away to enjoy the forbidden offers of other cultures. Both boys and girls are encouraged to experience all they can; clothes, food, alcohol. Any experience that could be dreamed about could become a reality for that weekend. This behaviour is inspired by the hope that once the young person returns to their community, they are certain that it is where they want to be. They are applauded for their return, regarded highly for their decision and their emotional adaption.

In China, there is the Confucian ji li ad guan li. These are ceremonies to award girls who are turning 20. The girls get to experience wearing traditional dresses, practice making time honoured hair buns and pay tribute to their Chinese ancestors. This celebration signifies the girl becoming a woman. They are saluted into adulthood, treasured.

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From Bullet Ant Initiations, walkabout and confucian ceremonies, the Right of passage takes a different turn depending on where you are in the World

With so many cultures having a rite of passage, valuing and rejoicing adulthood, Britain must have something other than sleep. Common law and the United Nations, state that adulthood arrives as soon as you have been alive for 18 years. In theory saying that at 23:59 you are a child and one minute later you are an adult. Nothing in your body has changed in that minute, nothing in your experiential learning has been altered. Yet now, you are in a whole new phase of life, expected to behave as an adult does, understand adult rules and be a fully fledged man or woman.

Many youth workers and researchers stress the importance of changing this, emphasising that a rite of passage, like the Rumspringa is a form of emotional growth. Tim Lott, one of the youth workers, has stated that children who do not have a ritualised transit into adulthood, will take it upon themselves to prove their value as an adult. Within the United Kingdom, this path appears to be gangs. To become a member of these groups, there are initiations that take you from being an outsider to ‘one of them’. That defines you as someone who is no longer playing childish games but as a gang member, someone to be respected because you completed a difficult task.

The Figures

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were an estimated 28,296 children aged ten to fifteen years who were gang members in 2018. This is the same age range as children from other cultures go on their transitional adventures. Walkabout allows you to find your inner strength and resilience, to respect others, nature and life. Gangs encourage initiations that hinder all of these. If these young people were given the choice between going on walkabout or joining a gang, which would they likely opt for?

There are an estimated 2800 gangs in the UK, with figures consistently increasing.

There are researchers who describe gangs as post-industrial tribes which need to be somewhere. This can be witnessed through each gang having colours, handshakes and signals, music, and of course the initiation. They are becoming a group with identified similarities, which separates them from the rest of society.

Unlike other subcultures however, this tribe has something to achieve, a tradition to conquer, a reward for bravery. They are incorporated into a new life phase, where others acknowledge and congratulate the change and growth of each member that has proven that they deserve the title of adult. They receive the admiration of a group of people, while the rest of society may be trying to suppress and control them. They have suddenly been given a role and an identity that they have earned and transformed into rather than merely handed a title of.

Could implementing a new rite of passage into adulthood be at least worth a try? A new tradition, a new culture.