Slipping into adulthood: girls and boys of today without initiation rites


Building one’s own identity is one of the most complicate process a person decides to face, and it accompanies them in their growth form birth to death. Inevitably, the need for ego-building is perceived with greater vehemence during adolescence, which for generations has brought girls and boys closer to the world of adults with one test after another. In contemporary Western society, however, initiation rites are going through a phase of profound devaluation and so it is increasingly frightening for young people to grow up.

The first to create the expression "rites of passage" and to examine its peculiarities in the sense of initiation rites was Arnold Van Gennep, professor of Ethnology at the University of Neuchâtel in 1909.

These rites are instrumental to the projection of the self into the future: they mark the passing of time and not quantitatively as the years, but qualitatively in phases of life.

As emerges from the reading of Part One of the book "La fatica di diventare grandi" ("The struggle to grow up"), edited by the professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Genoa Marco Aime, it is often the very phase of life in which the individual is placed to qualify them with respect to society, giving them rights and duties in front of the rest of the associates. The different age phases, fruit of social conventions, arrange into hierarchy the social order, ordering it also in the interest of the individual. It is not then absurd that some family historians refer to childhood as an invention of the contemporary age, nor that for others the birth of youth as an autonomous group coincides with the revolution of customs in the 1960s.

Even the different ways in which females and males historically face the approach of adulthood, closely linked to biological connotations of the human being, in no society can be reduced to the only anatomical characteristics of individuals. Rather, choices are made on the role to be attributed respectively to women and men already tangible in childhood: girls and boys, for example, tend to be given different toys.

It was precisely in reference to their different social position that the initiation rites for girls and boys, now dissolved, were for a long time uneven.

In Italy, for example, compulsory military service was the rite of passage to which the boys of the country were subjected for 143 years. Its abolition in July 2004, however, did not correspond to the introduction of any substitute moment: the young men had to become men by themselves or not at all. The latter was the preferred solution of the professor emeritus at the École normale supérieure in Paris, Alain Badiou, who explains in "True Life" how the elimination of symbolic transitions stimulated the temptation of eternal adolescence in the male. As for girls, in the traditional world to distinguish them from women were marriage and procreation, with the mediation of a man. To date, however, the emancipation of women, the increasing privatization of sexuality and the progressive postponement of marriage and procreation have left the little ones at the mercy of the media. The media teach them to dress, style and seduce themselves as if they were already trained women. In the eyes of the French philosopher, if children remain eternal Peter Pan, the girls acquire a coarse maturity too soon.

Consideration was given to the possibility of considering the baccalaureate exam as an initiation process, common to girls and boys, aimed at transforming students into young adults. The school, however, in the opinion of psychiatrist and psychotherapist Gustavo Pietropolli Charmet, has not yet shown itself ready to assume this function.

First of all, the school itself, focused on individual growth, is not able to recognize the importance assumed by the group-class in the development of the individual.

A further problem is that, whereas before it was adults who held the knowledge, today digital natives have access to a very large amount of information simply by relying on the Internet. On the web, moreover, hierarchies disappear: you are all equally network users and the relevance of authority fades away.

Finally, the classic subordinate relationship between parents and children has been transformed in the course of a few generations into a similar friendship based on dialogue which, although gratifying on the emotional level, often makes the child unable to recognize authority. The result is a tendency towards attachment to the family of origin and the consequent sense of failure due to the impossibility of realization.

The children of this era, abandoned to themselves, thus rely on the market. Adults have in fact bothered to bury the skeletons of anachronistic rites but have not been able to develop new and more intelligent ones. Not that there was a lack of proposals, including the year of "compulsory volunteering", but none were adopted. In the meantime, it is the corporations that help the teenager to place himself at the social level, providing them with the tools to build their own identity and giving them the opportunity to express their need for protection by establishing relationships that are easy to control: those with inanimate objects. It is now the passage from the purchase of a certain type of product to another that represents a sort of initiation: girls and boys grow up transforming themselves into consumers. The result is that in the liquid society one slips almost without realizing it in the world of adults: it is no longer long-term projects that drive growth, but the satisfaction of immediate drives.

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Rebecca Scaglia

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  • L'Autore

    Rebecca Scaglia

    Studentessa di Giurisprudenza al terzo anno, aspirante avvocato. Interessata alla tutela e difesa dei diritti della persona umana. Pienamente convinta che ognuno di noi abbia un grande potere, ossia di saper fare la differenza.

    Third year law student, aspiring lawyer. Interesed in protection of human rights. Fully convinced that everyone has a strong power, which is to know how to make the difference.



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