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Mentoring & Rites of Passage—why is life so hard without direction?

            At the age of 13 years Jewish boys all over the world participate in the "coming of age" ceremony called the 'bar mitzvah' when they become a man. This ceremony initiates them into the adult male world. From this day the young man is eligible to participate in the rituals of their religion. In Fiji adolescent girls complete their initiations to become a woman at their first menstruation. It is a time of great celebration and from this moment they are treated as women and expected to behave as such.

            In most non-western societies the initiation into adulthood is a predetermined and specific moment in each child's life. At a specific age, the child starts the preparatory initiations to become an adult. Each stage from infancy to adulthood is marked by ritual and expectation with defined behaviours reinforced by the entire society. Young women cast away their dolls and share in the life and responsibilities of adult women; boys stop playing their games and take on the responsibility of contributing to the food, safety and security of the tribe and begin their life as a responsible adult male. By initiating and guiding youths to adulthood, providing clear "road signs" and role models, society is ensured a harmonious continuity from generation to generation.

            Unfortunately our western society generally lacks these strongly defined "rites of passage". We have no initiation at puberty to celebrate the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence). Instead we have "media made" rites when at 16 years adolescents can legally engage in sex, apply for a licence, start work and gain their School Certificate; at 18 years they celebrate the right to vote, get drunk, marry, go to war, sign a legal document and gain their H.S.C.; at 21 years they celebrate entry to adulthood, a key to their future, to start a family and enjoy full adult participation in society - but for most these prized milestones are just a letdown.

            Why a letdown? Becoming an adult often means experiencing unemployment, depression, anxiety, the realisation that they are part of a dysfunctional family, and confusion over the double standards society endorses - from its politicians to commercials on TV. Even ‘Home & Away' betrays the complexity of real-life. There is little commitment on behalf of our society to give adolescents an identity except one of "rebellious, reckless and dangerous". Heck, we even have to support our kids until they become 25 now. An awareness of the difficulty faced by teenage students, and even ourselves, may help us cope with their identity struggles and mood swings.

            Our current western 'rites-of-passage' include getting a car licence, getting a job, driving a car, driving a car fast and dangerously, driving a car under the influence of alcohol or drugs, drinking alcohol to excess, getting into a fight, taking drugs at rave parties, having sex, unsafe sex practices. The list is much bigger, and gets more frightening when we introduce anxiety and depression, it catalyses self-harming, dangerous and reckless behaviour, suicidal thoughts and acts.

            We, the adults and leaders of our society, need to recognise our role in providing safe rites-of-passage for our teenagers. This is done quite successfully by schools, Scouts and other outdoors youth organisations, church youth organisations, sports & martial arts organisations and even the military, it occurs in many small and wonderful ways all around us. The fact that many young people are too anxious or depressed to join these organisations and thus successfully enter manhood / womanhood must also be recognised. This is where mentoring by an uncle, aunt or next door neighbour and perhaps professional psychological treatment enters the picture.

            The struggle to gain independence from parents is a developmental milestone catered for in traditional cultures by ritual - but it is almost nonexistent in our society. Traditional societies provide a ‘pathway’ with adults mentoring their youth through these stages. These mentors are mature adults committed to maintaining societal harmony through the guidance and training of their youth. Schools are expected to do this for the whole of society, a huge responsibility as we know just how hard this can be with rebellious teenagers. Teachers often receive the anger that would normally be directed at their parents. Schools are asked to take up the slack when the family and society fail.

            Teachers mentor their students in many different ways, in sports, music, tutoring and just by being there for their students when they need it most. I think that the community should say 'Thank you' to our teaching staff and encourage them to keep up the good work. The other side of the coin is that when everything else fails seek some form of therapy for your teenager.

I wrote this article to promote the mentoring program at my high school. It also shows that through proper mentoring and signposting we have a greater chance of surviving those dangerous adolescent years. Taoist sages mentor their students through a similar process as do martial arts schools. This course shows the initiatory stages that a sage has to go through to become enlightened in the Taoist tradition.

© Noel Eastwood 2002


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