How Different Cultures Recognize a Child's Coming of Age

Hispanic family celebrating quinceanera in church
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Coming of age is a term used to describe the transition between childhood and adulthood. For some cultures, coming of age is determined when a child reaches a certain birthday and is no longer considered a minor; 13, 15, 16, 18, and 21 are commonly thought of as significant ages for young adults. Other cultures determine a child's coming of age when they hit puberty. Many religions and cultural traditions have an official coming-of-age ceremony to observe the occasion. These usually involve both family and community.

Definitions of Coming of Age

The coming of age milestone is an important one, and can also be a difficult transition, as some children are hesitant to leave childhood behind. There are many different ways to define the expression "of age." For example:

  • Acquiring a legally significant age (in the United States, either 18 or 21)
  • Confirming an individual as a responsible adult within a religious community
  • Experiencing a moment of epiphany in which childhood is set aside
  • Puberty (or, in some cases, loss of virginity)
  • Taking responsibility for oneself and one's personal choices

Coming of Age Ceremonies

Many cultures and religions have specific events, ceremonies, or celebrations associated with coming of age. Depending upon your cultural and/or religious background, your child may celebrate one or more of these. Or you may wish to adapt a traditional ceremony to suit your family's needs and beliefs.

  • Bar or bat mitzvah: At the age of 13, Jewish teens take part in an important and joyful religious ceremony called the bar mitzvah (for boys; for girls, bat mitzvah). This event represents the culmination of years of Hebrew and Torah study and signifies the child's entrance into adulthood. The religious service is usually followed by a party. Of course, modern American 13-year-olds are not literally adults, but the event has great traditional importance.
  • Confirmation: Catholic teens are confirmed in their faith as one of the three most important sacraments (along with baptism and the Eucharist). Teens going through confirmation are sponsored by an adult and choose a confirmation name (usually a saint's name). As with Jewish teens, Catholic teens are not legally adults, though they are now adults in the eyes of the church. Other Christian denominations also confirm teen members of the congregation.
  • Muslim adulthood: While there is no official ceremony or celebration, after puberty, Muslim teens are considered adults and have the same obligations as adults. These include joining their community in daily prayers, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and wearing the hijab (girls and women).
  • Quinceanera: In the Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central and South American traditions, 15-year-old girls go through a semi-religious rite and celebration to mark their coming of age. The event is usually large, similar to a wedding, and included friends and relatives joining the family of the 15-year-old to celebrate.
  • Sweet 16: Many American families celebrate their child's coming of age with a "Sweet 16" party. Traditionally, this was mostly for girls, but boys too can be celebrated in this way. This is usually a large birthday party that includes both friends and family.

Challenges of Coming of Age

Literature, movies, and music often refer to the coming of age theme and the problems or challenges associated with the transition. For parents, parenting a child in the midst of coming of age can be difficult, as teens deal with broken hearts, disappointment, finding their own identities, and the challenges of increased responsibility, all for the first time. For children, coming of age can be exciting as they separate from their parents and form new social circles. However, it can also be a sad time for adolescents who fear the future and miss the safety of childhood.

By Jennifer O'Donnell
Jennifer O'Donnell holds a BA in English and has training in specific areas regarding tweens, covering parenting for over 8 years.