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youth development

Developmental pathways as rites of passage

Ron Garrison

Youth often use significant events in their lives as developmental pathways or "rites of passage" to serious antisocial behaviors. A youth’s progression along these pathways can be arrested and even reversed through positive rites of passage that are guided and supported by prosocial adults.

When I met Juan in 1989, he was 16 and classified by the Miami police department as a serious habitual juvenile offender. Juan’s history with family and institutions included being abandoned by his mother shortly after his fifth birthday, expelled from the Dade County schools at age II, injured in a gang fight that left him physically disabled by the time he was 12, and rejected by most social service agencies due to his repeat offender status. I was working in Miami at the time with federal SHOCAP (Serious Habitual Offender Comprehensive Action Program), and Juan was considered by his probation officer to be a perfect candidate for interagency monitoring under the program. My first task was to determine Juan’s eligibility by interviewing him and the professionals who had worked with him over the years. With each interview, it became clearer that Juan had become increasingly disruptive and antisocial as he progressed from childhood through adolescence. Juan confirmed these reports by admitting that as he got older, he involved himself in more serious acts of aggression against family, friends, classmates, and adults.

Prompted by a daily journal, Juan described proudly many events that contributed to his aggression. According to Juan, these acts were almost always tied to significant events in his life. Some of these events involved separation like the day he was sent by his mother to live with a despised aunt. Juan reacted to these problems at home by finding a "family" in a neighborhood gang, confirming the opinion of at least one researcher that most gang problems are homegrown (Howell, 1998).

A male offender in "street skills," which he used to complete his first successful petty theft, Juan also talked about periods of transition from one exclusionary program to another, usually involving schools, during which he would respond with overtly aggressive acts including attacks on classmates. And according to Juan’s journal, covert criminal acts like robberies and shootings, committed when he was older, increased his status in his street gang and were followed by "good time" celebrations where he was often recognized for his accomplishments by the gang’s leadership.

Rites of Passage
Juan’s self-reflection offers insight into how youth can use significant events in their lives as pathways or "rites of passage to more serious antisocial behaviors. Authorities have frequently described such significant events, especially in children’s lives, as rites of passage (van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1969; Myerhoff, Camino, & Turner, 1987; Warfield-Coppock, 1992; Delaney, 1995; Harvey & Rauch, 1997). Rites of passage mark distinctions in an otherwise continuous life course, celebrating and facilitating change and the disruption of standard social categories, while at the same time preserving them. This ritual process achieves a shift in consciousness that parallels the youth’s new social standing (Myerhoff, Camino, & Turner, 1987).

For most groups and societies, rites of passage for young people usually include benign forms of separation, preparation, transition, and acknowledgment (Delaney, 1995), and are based on life-affirming needs for acceptance, ceremony, and recognition. But in certain cultures, including our own, these rites can become pernicious. For example, the rites of cicatrization (the inducement of scars), genital mutilation, and teeth gouging practiced today in some primitive cultures are analogous to modern forms of extreme body modification, needle sharing, and gang initiation rituals that involve committing violent or criminal acts.

Without prosocial adults to support and carefully guide these rites and rituals, youth may upset the delicate balance that exists between rights and responsibilities, causing what they may perceive as fights to degenerate into a license to act where crime, violence, and victimization follow (Garrison, 1988). The recent shooting death of a 1 6-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, for example, was described as an initiation act for a new member of a rival gang (Nirode, 1997). Another young man described his transition into puberty without adult guidance in this way:

"I was restless and school was boring; being good was like I’d been missing out.. What mattered was to experience life, so I tried everything there was. My first time of taking drugs, of drinking myself incapable, of having full sex with a girl—they all happened with a rush, within just a few weeks of me being fourteen." (Parker, 1995, p. 32).

Developmental Pathways
Juan’s recounting of his own life events and personal acts also indicates how the classic rite of passage elements of separation, preparation, transition, and acknowledgment can go awry when not guided or supported by the community. For example, without a separation ritual fostered by significant adults, Juan’s traumatic detachment from his mother contributed to problems at school and eventually led to his escalating gang involvement.

The experiences of Juan and other young people with chronic misbehaviors that become sequentially more harmful to themselves and others parallel the research of Roif Loeber. Loeber and his colleagues articulated a developmental model to describe how children progress from disruptive to criminal behaviors (Loeber & Schmaling, 1985). According to these researchers, some children follow specific developmental pathways that lead to increasingly disruptive and delinquent behavior. Especially in boys, these behaviors are displayed in a methodical, progressive manner with less serious problem behaviors preceding more serious ones.

Loeber found that these increasingly disruptive and antisocial behaviors in childhood and adolescence roughly follow a sequence of progressive activity from difficult temperament to criminal recidivism (Loeber, 1990):

Loeber’s theory was field-tested beginning in 1986 with a longitudinal investigation in Pittsburgh, involving repeated contacts with the same male juveniles and their primary caretakers over a substantial portion of their developmental years (Huizinga, Loeber, & Thomberry, 1993). This research inquiry, later known as the Pittsburgh Youth Study, confirmed that for the males studied, less serious forms of delinquency developed into distinct behavioral pathways that often steered individuals toward more serious criminal activity.

The Pittsburgh Youth Study also found that boys who never progressed beyond the first stage of any pathway reported very low offense rates during the prime delinquency ages of 13 to 16. However, as soon as boys started to develop their disruptive and delinquent behavior characteristics along several diverse pathways, the rate of serious offenses increased (Kelly, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

Pathways and Resilience
The developmental pathways model proposed by Loeber (1990) argues that disruptive behaviors are both age-dependent and sequential. Children have an innate ability to consistently display disruptive and antisocial behaviors even though the behaviors are disclosed differently with increasing age. Yet although these behaviors may be antisocial, they nevertheless help to define the nature of resilience in children.

We learn from young people like Juan that resilience is not necessarily pretty, social, or lawful. Resilient qualities can go beyond accepted social norms and even toward criminality when a child’s circumstances become desperate or unsupported by caring adults. If a child is left alone or exploited by nefarious others, resilient traits surface to help him or her to survive hostile environments. When human children are forced to care for themselves, like some primates, because they have been abandoned by caregivers, species-specific resilient behaviors begin to emerge. These behaviors can acquire special meaning for the children and adolescents who use them and, as a result, often become ritualized. When these ritualized, resilient behaviors become disruptive, adults and their institutions, rather than listening, observing, and supporting, too often choose instead to discipline, medicate, or punish.

Developmental Pathways as Rites of Passage
The seeming paradox that exists between resilience and harmful behaviors can be unraveled by understanding the need for structured, multiple-component prosocial rites and rituals directed by adults and supported by community. Developmental rites of passage can assist children and adolescents in choosing prosocial pathways if adults support age-appropriate rituals based upon contributing resilient qualities.

For example, Steven Venable (1997) studied rites of passage programs that incorporated mountain climbing and backpacking. He concluded that "the rites of passage structure represents a significant and positive possible resource for growth and transformation in the lives of adolescents" (p. 12). African-American male teenagers living in high-risk environments were found to greatly benefit from comprehensive Africentric rites of passage programs described by Harvey and Rauch (1997). And Cassandra Halleh Delaney (1995) states:

Increased opportunity for young people to participate in appropriate rites of passage may be achieved by updating traditional ceremonies, continuing and expanding rites of passage programs and including bibliotherapy as part of the high school curriculum. It is hoped that these efforts will result in a decrease of self-destructive behavior and a greater sense of fulfillment for the young people coming of age in America. (p. 897)

The destructive developmental pathways that Loeber and his colleagues describe can be the avenues that Juan and his peers follow in order to survive a culture that fails to nurture or support them with ritualized activities that recognize the importance of childhood separation, preparation, transition, and acknowledgment. But with adult-directed rites of passage programs that incorporate ritualized resilience and developmentally appropriate activity, children like Juan can discover their strengths and share their gifts.

Rites of Passage Programs
Prom Catholic confirmation and Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs to the Mormon mission, most religions have traditionally incorporated rites of passage rituals into their faiths. However, emphasizing the importance of prosocial rituals for young people. Nevertheless, one program that has succeeded is the Boys and Girls Club of Stockton, California’s "Rites of Passage" effort to initiate boys in the requisites of manhood (Boys and Girls Club, Inc., 1998).

Using a council of elders, parents, mentors, schools, community based organizations, and the faith community, the club’s "Rites of Passage" program offers middle school youth the opportunity to gain important skills for adulthood. In this program, participating youth complete an application and assessment followed by youth and parent training, once-a-month Saturday family days, and field trips to expand their cultural awareness. Adopted recently by public schools and supported by community leaders, this passages program is designed as a social recovery plan for parents and youth, using 9 rites to reduce risk and increase the following protective factors:

1. Personal — enhancing self-esteem, improving self-concept, and enhancing a young person’s sense of self-worth.
2. Spiritual — exploring the concepts of unconditional love, friendship, courage, patience, joy, suffering, commitment, empathy, sympathy, and compassion.
3. Economic — teaching the purpose of money, how to make money, and how to manage it. Career exploration and entrepreneur training is an integral concept.
4. Social — developing skills of leadership such as public speaking, writing, supervising, motivating, decision making, concentration, and mediation skills.
5. Mental — enhancing the youth’s appreciation of education and critical thinking.
6. Physical — focusing on developmental understanding of the physical self and how to care for it. Youth explore and develop an understanding of nutrition and the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and substance abuse.
7. Historical — developing a sense of historical awareness, connection, vision, purpose, and appreciation of self and group.
s. Cultural — exposing youth to the ideas, values, principles, perceptions, art, music, literature, and social patterns of cultural groups.
9. Emotional — examining the development of and need to master the emotional self. Relationships, nonviolent conflict resolution, love, anger management, friendship, and family building are targeted.

Rites of Passage along Prosocial Pathways
In a recent address, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley discussed issues of violence and fear in urban, rural, and suburban schools (Willerton, 1995). Riley challenged the nation to create new "rites of passage" for youth threatened by a culture that too often glamorizes violence. By exploiting the potential of positive developmental pathways through programs like Stockton’s "Rites of Passage,"- adults are rediscovering the importance of directing children’s innate resilient abilities through prosocial rituals that guide a young person's sense of possibility and responsibility.

Since 1985, Ron Garrison has evaluated more than 2,000 school campuses in 36 states and Canada for site operations, safety, crime, drug, weapon, gangs, security, and critical incident procedures. He is currently coordinator of student personnel with the Vallejo city Unified School District and an NES presenter for its "Strategies for Reaching Disruptive and Angry Youth" conference series. He can be reached by telephone at 707-746-5880 or by e-mail at safeschool@aotcom.


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This feature: Garrison, Ron (1998) Developmental Pathways as Rites of Passage. Reaching Today's Youth. Vol.3 no.1 pp.33-36