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Coming of Age & Rites of Passage

: Krysta Ryan

In my Cultural Anthropology class, rites of passage were first analyzed by the social scientist Arnold Van Gennep when he wrote The Rites of Passage in 1908 (Van Gennep, ([1908] 1966). He outlined principal stages in which humans move through a life cycle(Crapo,2013). As all humans transition through different stages of life often times symbolically representing a status change or a critical move from childhood to adulthood.

Cross-culturally there are significant universals among different societies in how they celebrate or recognize the rites of passage of adolescence members of the group. The variations in how humans honor this particular rite of passage can consist of many rituals, but four elements are noted. The four elements are separation, involvement from an elder or teacher, transition and then the recognized change in status presented to the community (Delaney,1995).

While these rituals for many cultures have various ages in which rites of passage occur, a common theme for girls is the onset of menstruation. This signifies the girl’s transition to womanhood by now being able to bear children.

The function of this rite is the acknowledgment that the boy or girl has completed all necessary and mandated education which now prepares them for work or higher education. Delaney(1995), mentions this initiation has common elements found in other rites of passage rituals. Such as wearing a ceremonial robe or graduation gown, the structure of the ceremony and the speeches in which welcomes students into adulthood.

All in all, the functions of any rites of passage is viewed as a transitioning time in a humans life cycle. Going back to the four elements noted earlier, each having importance in the completion of the rite behind graduation. The separation from the home for 12 years during the daily educational process, then the teaching and mentoring of teachers, followed by the transition into whats after 12th grade and then the graduation ceremony which is the acknowledgment from the society of status change. As rites of passage have been documented cross-culturally, the understanding of these some-what taboo or extreme public displays must be approached using cultural relativism.

In the video, Girls Rite of Passage,  the Apache tribe in New Mexico hold a four-day ceremony to honor girls as they transition from adolescence into womanhood. The four-day experience is said to symbolize creation. Representing infancy, childhood, adolescence, and womanhood. The test of endurance is critical as the girls have limited food and prepare for long hours of dance (National Geographic,2007). This example of rites of passage is just one of variation of how women transition into a new life cycle.

In America, girls typically do not celebrate publicly their onset to menstruation. Although biologically this is a clear indication that an adolescence girl is transitioning into womanhood it is viewed more privately. The ceremonial ritual of graduation from high school is often considered a rite of passage for both boys and girls moving from adolescence to adulthood here in America.

Image Credit-Warrior Films


Diverse cultures use puberty rituals as a symbol of transition at a critical time in a personal development. As a child moves through their life cycle and transitions into an emerging adult creates the need for acceptance from members of their society. This validation achieved through completion of the rite of passage plays a key role in social development and self-identification including self-worth.

Cultural customs vary marginally between western and non-western societies and it is clear that the economic backdrop has the significant influence on how, when and why puberty rituals occur.

None the less, rites of passage in America, weigh less on puberty and more on what I consider milestones or achievements. High school graduation for most American students, for instance, is 3-5 years after the biological time for puberty. Considering the average age for girls to begin menstruation is 13 and onset of this body change has a long history of puberty rituals within non-western societies.

Yet completion of the twelfth grade is traditionally viewed and celebrated publicly among families of many different social classes in the US. Americans consider youths to become adults after the completion of graduation. Although graduation is not perceived as a rite of passage to all Americans, because of the strict mandated educational requirements, it still is noted as a transitional phase in a life cycle for adolescents.


About K. Ryan

My name is Krysta Ryan and I am a student at Ashford University seeking a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a bachelor's degree Mass Communication. I am from Cincinnati Ohio in which my professional experiences include Executive Management within the nonprofit sector and worked as a Social Media Manager which allowed me to gain a working knowledge of writing for newer digital platforms.


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Author Qualifications

  • Bachelor’s in Journalism
  • Bachelor’s Mass Communication
  • Minor in Writing
  • Specialization
    • Environmental Science
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