It’s time to reimagine rites of passage

Published in the Courier Mail 17 Oct 07

In just over a month, tens of thousands of young Queenslanders will finish high-school. With graduations imminent, students and parents are caught up in the whirlwind of formals, graduation nights, university applications, job hunting and final assessments.

At the same time, the Gold Coast is gearing up for the annual week of schoolies revelry which follows graduation. Infrastructure, volunteers and activities are being prepared to host this week which has positioned itself in the cultural imagination of Australia as an integral part of the rite of passage for young Australians.

However, the rites of passage we have for young people entering adult society, are largely focused on, or aided by, binge drinking, which we have unfortunately culturally defined as a part being ‘grown up’. Sadly, the large majority of young people at Schoolies will fulfil society’s expectations for a coming of age – which is to drink to dangerous levels and engage in physically, sexually and emotionally harmful behaviour. And for some, the consequences of that will stay with them forever.

In fact, so ingrained is the idea of over-consumption of alcohol within our culture that 2 million Australians are risking brain damage from excessive consumption of alcohol. We do a tragic disservice to the next generation if we continue to define being grown up with activities that the National Health and Medical Research Council has just advised puts them at short-term risk of injury and accident, and longer term risks of a range of illnesses, including lip and other oral cancers, liver cancer, breast cancer, cirrhosis, stroke and diseases caused by high blood pressure.

But what if we re-imagined coming of age? What if we created different rites of passage? What if we gave adolescent males the chance to be men through being those who defend and protect rather than those who exploit and damage? What if we gave teenage girls the opportunity to be women by growing in purpose instead of simply partying?

The coming of age process in our society is one that has largely occurred by default. While other cultures had significant ceremonies at which times young people were officially welcomed into adult society, along with the responsibilities that entails, Australian culture tends to look more the freedoms that coming of age brings. The individualism we value so highly means we are more interested in what we can gain by adulthood, rather than what we can contribute. Young men therefore, are encouraged to define themselves by drinking a yard glass, getting a hotted up car, or bedding young women, who similarly, are encouraged to party excessively and dangerously, and be sexually available.

We need creative and lateral approaches to coming of age in our nation. Imagine ways of welcoming young people into civic life that extended past pleading with them to enrol to vote. Imagine engaging them in volunteering and advocating for issues such as poverty, indigenous health issues, and better environmental responsibility. Rather than simply letting them virtually experience the world around them, we could resource opportunities for them to find out for themselves what we face, and then genuinely empower them to find creative ways to address these.

We need to consider this widely, and think of broad civic and cultural initiatives. However, we can also consider this individually. Family and friends of young men and women can help redefine what it means to be an adult in an Australian context. Rather than giving the young people you interact with something to live down to, why not give them something to live up to. Positive encouragement, and pointing them to a greater purpose, will help our young people become not just the adults, but also the leaders that our nation needs.

Ruth Limkin