Older cultures did not have the kinds of adolescent problems we are now experiencing. However, since adolescence is a universal process, they did have to deal with typical adolescent dynamics. Even in ancient times and primitive cultures, parents wrestled with their adolescents’ moods, desires, and rebelliousness. I can imagine a young African boy hounding his father for his own spear, a Native American youth begging constantly to go on the next hunting trip, or a Polynesian boy demanding to have his own canoe.
Traditional cultures seemed to realize even better than we do that adolescence is a trying time, to say the least, for both the youth and the adults. One of the ways they minimized the stress of dealing with their blossoming teenagers was to confine adolescence to a short period of time. Rites of passage and initiations were created not only to foster a healthy transition from boyhood to manhood, but also to put a limit on the time required for the whole process to unfold, and to give it a definite end point. Promoting youth to adulthood quickly enabled our forebears to avoid years of head-butting with teens.
In most older cultures, parents needed to teach their children survival skills while they were young. With the onset of puberty and the beginning of adolescence, the adults realized the need to get their youths grown up and involved with the adults. Teenagers were deemed big and strong enough to do adult work, and they were able to have babies. Rather than make them wait for years to engage in adult behaviors like sex, the older cultures thought it wiser to prepare their teens for adult work and marriage sooner rather than later. Thus they allowed short periods for adolescence, not the number of years we now subject them to. They were given an initiation, and those who successfully completed the test were promoted into the general population.
Can Adolescents Be Controlled?
While the Western mind thinks it can control adolescence like it tries to control other phenomena, older cultures knew you could not control or fight the process. From my experience with adolescence I draw this analogy: It’s like rafting a river. Once you get into it, there’s really no stopping and certainly no going backward. Ironically, your only real semblance of control is to actually release control and go with the river. Older cultures acted like very experienced river guides; they knew the process was difficult and dangerous but had learned you can’t fight the current. The more you work with it, the more actual control you have.
An example of this “go-with-the-flow” approach to adolescence can still be seen today in one African village. For generations, when the boys in this particular village start getting typically adolescent, which includes becoming independent, rebellious, and thinking they know it all, the adults have a fascinating way to deal with it. About a mile from the main village is a camp built especially for adolescents. As a boy starts demanding more control and autonomy in his life, the adults invite him to go live with his other adolescent friends for up to a year. Imagine, a whole village of teenagers! The deal includes the requirement that after one year, the youth must agree to come back into the community and act like an adult. Looking at a year of hanging out with his friends, the boy always says yes. But then something amazing happens.
The First Bachelor Pad! Who's Cooking?
When the boy gets to his new teen village, his first bachelor pad, everything seems like a big party. But very soon reality shows up. There are no adults to provide food when the boy gets hungry, or to build a fire when it gets cold, or to fix the roof when it rains. Almost instantly, the boys learn that to really be autonomous, they have to act like grown-ups. It usually doesn’t take long — about three days — to see that they’re probably better off in the main camp where there’s food, girls, and other amenities.
Rather than fighting the normal drives of their boys, this society has learned to flow with them and let the reality of everyday life do the lecturing for them. If these African parents did what many of us do — lecture to their children about showing responsibility and how one day they will have to get their own food and their own firewood — then their kids would ignore them like many of ours do. These parents learned to put the kids in a concrete situation they could easily understand: reality. Certainly things may have gone wrong, accidents may have happened, but it was learned that withholding this process from youth actually backfired. While we may not like the “survival-of-the-fittest” concept, the ones in any culture or species who learn and grow are the ones who survive, and, just as importantly, thrive.
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Lectures or Concrete Consequences?
We are not set up in modern America to send our teens to such a camp, but the lesson and the message are important. The adults in that village realized that lectures are not the best way to relay information. Those of us who have read what behavioral science can tell us about teens understand the need for logical consequences, and logical consequences are just what the teens in the camp experience. The information the adults are trying to pass along is not some vague, abstract “you’ll use this one day,” but instead lessons in the here and now.
I believe it is crucial to bring this principle into practice with our young men. Where possible, allow your teen to experience situations in which he is responsible for the results of his own decisions: working part time outside of the home or managing his own money. One of the hard jobs we have to do with teens is to give them a little leeway and see if they move forward appropriately or slip up.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Inc.
©2004, 2006 by Bret Stephenson. www.innertraditions.com
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age
by Bret Stephenson.
For tens of thousands of years all across the globe, societies have been coping with raising adolescents. Why is it then that native cultures never had the need for juvenile halls, residential treatment centers, mood-altering drugs, or boot camps? How did they avoid the high incidence of teen violence America is experiencing? In From Boys to Men, Bret Stephenson shows readers that older cultures didn’t magically avoid adolescence; instead they developed successful rituals and rites of passage for sculpting teen boys into healthy young men.
About the Author
BRET STEPHENSON is a counselor of at-risk and high-risk adolescents and a men’s group facilitator. In addition to serving as executive director at Labyrinth Center, a nonprofit organization in South Lake Tahoe offering classes and workshops on adolescent issues for teens and adults, he is currently designing and implementing employment and entrepreneurial projects for teens. He has been a presenter and speaker at the United Nations World Peace Festival and the World Children’s Summit.