Rites of Passage: Initiation as a Developmental Tool

by Katia Puryear
First published in ORB 202, Yule 2006


As a student of ancient ethnological systems and religions, I have noticed various institutions successfully utilized by tribal cultures in raising children to become mature, competent adults. One of these, and probably the most important, is the use of initiations, also called Rites of Passage among coming-of-age ceremonies, which are still used among various indigenous people around the world today. As the West transformed its civilizations from collectivist to individualist, many of the vital practices that support psychological and sociological well-being were lost. One of these vital practices may very well be the use of Initiations into adulthood for young men and women. This may be a contributing factor to the continuous cycle of European empires (such as Rome, Greek, Byzantine, etc.) rising and falling throughout history, as well as much of the despair and isolation felt in many individuals today.

I believe that re-instituting cultural values for social units (families, friend circles, communities, nations, etc.) can be of great value within so-called individualist countries. These Rites of Passages, a strong characteristic of communal relationships, could be, for example, used as an important tool in helping troubled adolescents and teenagers become successful adults and push them away from self-destructive paths. We would define their success by the establishment and achievement of positive, progressive goals that would benefit them on various levels, including emotional, spiritual, and economic. It is towards this end that I have decided to look at one of the most ancient development tools known to all of humanity for this study.

Literature Review:

The theory I have chosen in proposing such a study called Initiatory Impact Theory, since it focuses on how these initiations can influence youths on their journey into adulthood. Adolescence is the time in one’s life when the identity goes through its process of formation, thus it is important for a child gain a clear understanding of when this process is complete so they may begin their educative and instructive years, each dealing with the primary (though not sole) focuses of the child’s development. When Rites of Passage are being sought, children can spend their young-adult, adult years, and perhaps even their entire lives, trying to “prove” their maturity in various ways. These ways usually manifest exactly the opposite and can often lead to disastrous results.

When entering the teenage years, many youths seek various forms of identity through peer groups and even gangs. These groups can compel them into practices that would be considered harmful or dangerous simply to demonstrate strength or ability, i.e. to establish a stigma or (false) maturity. Youth gangs provide many of the tribal elements missing from modern society: identity, success, and participation in the life and skills of a limited but powerful community. The reason one would join a gang stems from its effective imitation of the primal Rites of Passage process, where a new member develops a deep loyalty to a structure that has provided significance, ceremony, and belonging.

For troubled youth, many of whom come from broken homes or dysfunctional family environments, such a lifestyle can be particularly alluring, since it may replace the normative, genetic family structure. Not only are the familial connections lacking for many, but a sense of ethnic identity, which is also valid, may have been lost as well. From this can arise confusion and frustration as children must deal with low self-esteem, and a bruised sense of ethnic identity. Such desires for social bonds are a part of our evolutionary design, and these tribal instincts, ingrained into our sense of being, must manifest in one way or another. Increases in substance abuse, violent behaviour, thoughts of suicide and other negative social tendencies could be linked to society’s underutilization of Rites of Passage. Informal indicators of adulthood such as drinking, promiscuity, drug use, and gang involvement serve as socially prescribed transitional markers which replace the healthier, cultural institutions. This is mainly why I believe such a study could be beneficial and is worthy of the time and effort.

The idea is to create a new paradigm, a new social agenda where we provide such Initiations for boys and girls to become men and women, while allowing parents to create an interdependent environment to promote a positive direction. Identification with one’s culture and heritage is an integral part of the Self, which may affect individuals, both in a social and personal sense. It is important, during the formative years (adolescence), to establish a sense of cultural identity, which should coincide with ethnic identity, culminating in the Rite of Passage to begin their adult life. This is not an endeavour that would only target a specific subject, but would have to include as many members of their family and friend circles as possible. These individuals represent the person’s tribe or clan. Ritual confirmation within social organizations such as these, affirming their status as well, allows for personal development.

Connection to a culture, especially one’s ethnic culture, can be a profound experience for anyone. Contemporary Rites of Passage that are culturally specific in design, denounce self-destructive behaviours and promote pro-social and pro-familial lifestyles. Virtually every definition of culture suggests that it represents a coalescence of discrete behavioural norms and cognitions shared by individuals within some definable population that are distinct from those shared within other populations. We can use this identification with culture and ethnicity to promote positive lifestyles for youth, and help them overcome the many challenges they will face. Once identity is defined and adulthood confirmed, a new direction can begin, one that may very well lead them to their maximum potential. Once a person has obtained validation through a heightened understanding and appreciation for their ethnic roots, a sense of pride develops which is palpable, and they are less likely to disgrace themselves before the group they have connected to in an ancestral sense.

All of us seek purpose and meaning in our own lives, and one can find their path towards this when fully recognizing and celebrating who they are and where they come from, both geographically and genetically. Significant persons within their environment can influence the life decisions of adolescents, and, if we assume that there is a desire for positive social recognition, they will make choices that are congruent within the community. Culture provides a buffer against anxiety by providing a set of values and normative standards against which an individual may be judged a worthwhile, socially acceptable person. The goal is to feel that one is a valuable member of a meaningful culture.

We can offer positive change in adolescents by helping them understand the difference between an organic, ethnic culture, driven by socialization; and superficial, “pop” culture, driven by materialism. Socialization goals are adaptive to particular eco-social and historical environments, so that it can be expected that they also changed with socio-historical changes. From this we can realize personal change when our cultural environment is altered towards a healthier end. Shared knowledge and shared meanings generate a set of everyday practices that also define culture. Thus, culture and behaviour, culture and mind are viewed as indistinguishable. Therefore it can be said that in order to change the behaviour, we must change the culture, or at least the perception of culture.

I believe that if we were to develop a project that would offer appropriate means of Initiation for boys and girls, along with proper culture establishment for their social environment, we could see a significant reduction in destructive and anti-social behaviours. Moreover, this could give parents an invaluable tool in helping the nurturing of their children into successful, mature adults. To notice and affirm the transition from childhood to adulthood is an important act that serves as a marker towards healthy growth. It is the beginning of a transitive process, not an end in itself, which requires the attention of all those close to the subject, who in turn will work for his or her well-being as a member of their tribe or clan. Not only does this allow the adolescent to recognize the arrival of their next stage of development, it allows others to see this as well, which can be positive for everyone involved.


The subjects of this study would be troubled youths between the ages of 12-14, the ages traditionally noted within various tribal societies as the time for such events, which, quite deliberately coincides with puberty. We would define “troubled youth” as one who has expressed violent of antisocial tendencies, who has poor academic performance, who may be a member of a gang, who takes illegal drugs or abuses alcohol, or who engages in promiscuous sex acts. A clinical examination of each subject would be required to rule out developmental or physiological disorders that may be the cause of their behaviours. A group of 20 subjects and their families and/or friend circles will take part in our experiment, since it is the Experimental method that will be employed for this study. Ten subjects/families will act as our control group and will be labelled Group A. The other ten will be our experimental group, labelled Group B. A list of possible mentors for the subject will be required for later interview, which shall be described below.

Group A will be given conventional family therapy and discussions on positive change for the youth, and disciplinary methods and guides on raising children for parents. We would do our best to offer as much aid as possible outside the realm of the cultural paradigm or Initiatory Impact Theory. No doubt these methods can have a positive influence and may bring about positive results. Scoring the success rate of such a program would be based on decrease of the negative behaviours and increase of positive behaviours, as well as the percentage of subjects who brought about significant change for themselves. Such data would rely on testimonials from parents, questionnaires provided to all those involved measuring the initiate’s temperament and behaviour before and after the experiment, and scholastic reports throughout the study.

Group B will be interviewed extensively to gain an in-depth perspective of their morals, values, self-opinions, and ideas on spirituality and culture. The questions will aid the interviewer in constructing a Rite of Passage and cultural program that will fit best with each subject group. Variables will include social status, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and personal attitudes. If we are to provide a worthy model for participants, we will need to know what cultural paradigm would best fit with them and their ethnic background. For example, a European family may not feel comfortable using Asian symbols and terminology in such rites, just as an Asian family may not desire to experience an Initiation developed around European symbols and terminology. Symbols, rituals, and physical participation provide some form of internal patterning that allows initiates and other participants to acquire a “shape” that prepares them for the ongoing work of education and instruction. The shape taken becomes a determining reference point. Tracking the progress of Group B will also rely on testimonials from parents; questionnaires provided to all individuals involved measuring the initiate’s temperament and behaviour before and after the experiment, and scholastic reports throughout the study.

The next stage of the experiment is to work with family members or guardians to provide an appropriate mentor for the child, who must not be a member of the immediate family. The mentor participates, or even conducts the Rite of Passage, and will act as the initiate’s guide beyond this point. He or she must be an adult, who replaces the “elder” of tribal societies. One of the critical pieces in a reflective education process, such as this, is the role of guides, or “elders”. It is elder who lead the initiate through the process of reflection, offering direction, experience, and affirmation.

Rites of Passage are generally divided into four phases, commonly shared by many cultures, past and present, throughout the world. They are as follows:

1. Preparation: This stage represents the support of the old group, or those who have been a major factor in the child’s life up to this point. Here they may buy special attire for the initiate to wear in the Rite (which should separate them from the mundane), offer words of encouragement, help them get ready, and even give gifts of recognition for the roles the youth will take on once the Initiation has concluded. This is also the time for the old roles and traits to be set aside for the transformation. It may involve taking away material possessions symbolic of childhood, or detailing to the initiate how their position within the group is about to undergo a serious change.

2. Separation: Here the initiate is taken away from the old support group by the mentor, who will take them through a series of culturally significant acts that will symbolically represent the “death” of the child to make way for the “birth” of the adult. This will also involve an acclimation towards their new roles and status within the group. Such rites include various challenges and struggles, which may induce fear or anxiety that the initiate must overcome. This will bring them into what is called “the liminal phase”, the point of crossroads between child and adult, said to have strong psychological significance. Emotional responses of anxiety and fear arise due to the new demands that will be expected of them.

3. Transition: Here the initiate begins to learn and act out the new roles that will be expected of them. The mentor aids in this process, while handing down wisdom that will be useful to the initiate, marking the beginning of their tutorial relationship. It is here that the initiate will begin to accept their new position, and will experience relief and joy in overcoming the challenges imposed upon them, as well as the liminal stage. Once this stage is complete, the child phase diminishes and the adult phase begins.

4. Re-incorporation: Upon returning to the old support group a celebration takes place, recognizing that the old identity has been abandoned and the new identity is emerging. New roles, commitments, and responsibilities are expected for oneself and are demanded by the group. Along with this comes new privileges and prestige, focusing on the individual as a responsible, culturally affirmed being. The mentor assists in the initiate’s understanding and mastery of the new roles.

In combination with this effort are several key factors that must be kept in mind. Daniel G. Scott detailed these key factors in The Child and Youth Care Journal (October 1998):

• There must be some clear and known spirituality. That is to say, there must be a values/belief structure that is defined well enough to provide a specific web for thinking.
• Symbolic elements cannot be naïve and must contain the richness of both dark and light sides of life. Death is an element of transformation. Failure and weakness are real and must be considered as part of life and part of maturation.
• There must be adult personnel to provide support and context for those who are aiming at re-formation. They will need to be a variety of ages, patient, and open to others who are incomplete and uncertain. They will need to have experience and maturity to contribute to the process, acting as “elders”.
• We need to carefully consider what are safe, appropriate environments and what are suitable timeframes for coming of age.
• We will have to change the current central focus in education or instruction and the passing on of informational knowledge…Education and instruction will not disappear, but they need a context in which formation is deliberate.
• We may have to reconsider the implications of certain cultural institutions, such as the media and schools, having unhindered formational access to children. We may need to consider what formational activities are in place, their value, and which ones we are willing to be part of and shaped by. We may need to consider what skills and interests formational practice inclines adolescents towards.
• There are many signs in youth subculture that a search goes on continually for ritual and formational activities. We need to see these activities in light of a desire for workable passage. We need to discover from existing knowledge of rites of passage what developmental tasks and needs are appropriate for youth in coming of age.

Many traditions exist from many different cultures to assist in the Initiation process. To separate the event from the mundane, the Rites involve special dress, cultural symbols, and a specific ceremonial atmosphere. Some initiates may be given new names, nicknames or epithets to go with their new identity. The idea is to find culturally appropriate themes and images that will connect one to their ethnic heritage, which is impressed upon their psyche. Images and symbols, rich with multiple meanings, come embedded in the rituals and stories of a people. Their meanings are implanted without the need for understanding all or any of them. In order for the Rite to have value to the initiate, there must be a significant link to cultural, social identity.


It is important to understand the worth culture has on our conception of the self, especially in regards to social validation, healthy relationships, and successful living. For a child to be given official, public affirmation by those he/she looks to for guidance is an incredibly worthwhile experience. But there must exist within framework a spiritual reflection upon the goals and design of the rites themselves. There is a reason why such ceremonies revolve around religious, as well as cultural (often these two overlap) foundations. To have a spiritual connection to the formation of adult identity is similar to reflecting upon the miracle of childbirth, for in essence a birth does occur within this event. This is not to say that a religious ideology is required for such a practice, only that one should seek spiritual significance in that which takes place the Initiation. By ‘spiritual’ I mean that aspect of development that includes the formation of qualities and character that shape values, ethics, religious beliefs, and relationships to community and environment.

In a materialistic society, where consumerism defines much of what we would call “culture”, a deep-rooted connection to our environment is altogether lacking. Consumerism seems to depend on immaturity and vulnerability. Insecure and unhappy people are far more likely to purchase something that will secure them, if only for a moment. When one feels a relation to something larger than his or her self (but is inherently connected to them), one that will inspire them and allow them to appreciate an intrinsic link to past, present, and future generations, nothing can be more profound. Rather than simply accepting notions of individualism as a cultural stereotype, we must implement social structures towards collectivism to renew the tribal nature that lies within us all.
It must come from an organic culture, one that springs from the lifeblood of our ethnic background, differentiating itself from so-called “pop culture”, which is synthetic and superficial. The identity needs to develop in a way that promotes positive growth on a psychological scale and socially aware context. Once the child recognizes his or her cultural and personal identity, such expressions as altruism, empathy, and loyalty can manifest in a more pronounced fashion. When this is denied, one can feel isolated, depreciated, and unsympathetic towards others they feel no relationship towards.

It must be recognized that Initiation is not an instantaneous transition from child to adult, and should not be treated as such. Rather, it is the first step towards socialization of youths in their process of maturation into adults. The use of a celebrated event where such a process begins has been a tool successfully used by peoples all over the world for thousands of years. These rites are so solidly rooted in tribal societies because they work, and they are effective because they represent a valid expression of cultural affirmation for youths in their transitive stage. What nature manifests through puberty, we should take advantage by giving our children the proper course towards their own success.