Adolescence is probably the most stereotyped stage of life. Indeed, these young people are perceived by many as tormented, rebellious, carefree, selfish, unstable, and dramatic. However, adolescence is understood differently in different cultures.
The romantic and critical idea of adolescence emerged and spread at the beginning of the 20th century when G. Stanley Hall published his work, Adolescence. This child psychologist argued that the stage between 12 and 25 years old was like a second birth, a total transformation caused by puberty. In contrast, years later, the anthropologist, Margaret Mead rebelled against this idea. She decided to study how adolescence was experienced in different social groups.
Thanks to her ideas, there was a subsequent increase in interest and research in this subject. The aim was to better understand the universal aspects of adolescence, as well as the differences that occur as a result of cultural and social influence.
Universal aspects of adolescence
Adolescence is closely linked to puberty. It’s a universal biological process that lasts several years. It involves the development or transformation of the child body to the adult body. These changes are genetically programmed. They ultimately determine the extent of reproductive capacity and other maturational and psychological achievements. Among them are greater autonomy and ability to survive, a readjustment of social relations, and the construction of identity.
Another universal idea is that adolescence ends when adulthood is reached. However, there are no universal markers or indicators of adulthood. This means that the stage will end at the moment in which a social or cultural group determines it ends, according to its own particular history or tradition. Therefore, the end of adolescence may occur during or even after puberty occurs.
Finally, the stage of adolescence is a period or moment in which an infant acquires certain skills necessary to be an integrated and functional adult in their own social group. These skills are specific to each society.
Different cultures, different adolescence
As we mentioned earlier, adolescence is experienced differently in different cultures. Thus, the skills that young people must acquire and the experiences of this stage aren’t always the same. Moreover, it can be said that the concept of adolescence as a transitional stage isn’t a universal fact.
For instance, in some cultures, the passage from childhood to adulthood doesn’t happen over a period of years, but it’s a quick and structured transition. This change is often marked by rites of passage, also called pubertal rites of passage.
These are ceremonies to which the pubescent is subjected at a given time, which have various functions. They include clearly differentiating childhood from adulthood, guiding how community members are expected to relate to each other, and reinforcing the identity of the group.
These rituals can also take place in those societies in which adolescence constitutes an intermediate stage. However, their role is secondary and they happen in a more subtle way.
Adolescence today in different cultures
In Western culture, adolescence follows the trend set during the Industrial Revolution. Before this period, labor incorporation occurred around the age of seven. At that time, the child started work as an adult. However, there was a subsequent change in mentality, and training, study, and specialization started to become important.
This made the educational period compulsory as well as longer and more accessible. Consequently, the adult role was thought to occur later, creating a new social group. Nowadays, adolescence is understood as the period between 12-13 and 20 years old, in which young people have their own fashions, habits, ideas, and interests.
For most people this idea is universal, but the reality is quite different. As a matter of fact, there can be as many adolescences as there are cultures. Next, we’ll give some examples of how the transition to adulthood occurs in other societies.
In Judaism, the passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah, which occur in 13-year-old boys and 12-year-old girls, respectively. Before the event, the children spend time studying their role as adults and becoming aware of their responsibility as independent individuals.
The meaning of these ceremonies has been changing and adapting to modern society. Nevertheless, once the event takes place, the young man begins to consider himself a mature person. He becomes responsible for his actions and is obliged to comply with all the precepts of Judaism.
The Maasai warrior people of Tanzania and Kenya have three rites and social conditions that make up the institution of moran, the transition from boys to adulthood. When boys turn 15, they undergo an intense initiation ceremony, known as Enkipaata. They’re circumcised and, if they show strength, they go hunting birds to adorn themselves with feathers, their first warrior symbol.
They’ll then live outside the town for ten years, training as warriors. Upon returning, a 15-day ceremony is held where two more rites will take place. In the first, Eunoto, they feed on a cow, drinking its blood directly from the animal. The final ceremony is Olng’esherr. The future adult warrior visits his mother’s house for the last time, who shaves his head as a symbol of his freedom.
For Japanese 20-year-olds, the second Monday in January is the day they become adults. At this age, they’re considered mature and contributing members to society and can vote and drink alcohol. The ritual that marks this transition involves going to the local town hall in their best clothes, receiving gifts, and celebrating with their friends and family.
The Inuit people live in the north of Baffin Island. For Inuit boys, their transition period to adulthood begins at the age of 11-12, when they must go out in the summer to learn hunting skills from their father. They’re separated from their parents at a camp to learn about survival skills and the outdoors. They also have to learn how to handle huskies, which is fundamental to hunting successfully and building igloos. Once they complete their first successful hunt, they return to their group as responsible men.
In the case of Inuit girls, they’re considered women once they learn essential caregiving skills. For example, crushing and melting ice for water, making boots, obtaining seal blubber for cooking, and lighting lamps. Once they start to menstruate and they’ve mastered those skills, a facial tattoo ceremony will be held, symbolizing their strength and ability to start a family.
The importance of learning about adolescence in other cultures
Knowing what the different stages of life are like in different cultures helps us understand how society influences us all. In fact, it helps us learn how our own environment determines ideas, behaviors, and what’s expected of us. From here, we can start to better understand people, in this case, young people, and help them to develop in the best possible way.
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