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Coming of Age the Rite Way – Bret Stephenson Review

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Only five words into David Blumenkrantz’ Coming of Age the Rite Way (Read an excerpt HERE) , he challenges us to look at the ‘right’ way to help our youth come of age in a healthier way than is the current trend. The powerful connotation of the term rite of passage as a major life transition has been watered down over the decades to include everything from getting a driver’s license to each step of the corporate ladder.

Blumenkrantz reminds us up front that the rite of passage process for youth is a ‘right’ that we adults have let slip away in modern times. In our effort to protect them from these ancient and powerful rituals we have inadvertently harmed them by taking away the clear path to healthy adulthood, and more importantly, manhood and womanhood.

Coming of Age the Rite Way encourages us to look at many aspects of modern ROP work with youth. His work on community development is nothing short of brilliant, painting us a picture of what a community needs to do to develop and maintain a process for helping its youth come of age healthily. Almost all of us rite of passage practitioners have run into the wall knowing our rite of passage approaches reach most kids in a good way, but then they go home to a lack of community and family support and the internal changes seldom solidify.

I’m as guilty as anyone of following the fun and sexiness of providing direct rite of passage programs with people, then trying to convince them to go home and build a support model to back up the rite of passage process. David Blumenkrantz has opened my eyes, admittedly reluctantly, to the realization that I must develop a community of support first, to reveal and reap the full potential of the rite of passage process. If we do not follow this critical sequence, Blumenkrantz points out that we are limiting the effectiveness of ROP or other community approaches by not developing community awareness and support beforehand.

I had to ponder this for a while. Applying the “chicken or egg” question to ROP and community development, I quickly saw the path Blumenkrantz follows. Looked at from an evolutionary perspective, would a culture develop a rite of passage for its children first and then develop a community of support afterward? Obviously not. The community developed as all communities do in an organic way, and then rites of passage were developed as a need for the community’s survival. Indeed, rites of passage are the glue that hold a community together and not the other way around. Traditional cultures strongly celebrated their youth successfully completing their coming of age challenges because it confirmed the community would continue to be strong and prosper. Blumenkrantz provides dozens of illustrations pointing out that rites of passage evolved out of necessity, and their universal use, informed by the diversity within cultures is evidence that this model worked for the communities. Unlike modern cultures, traditional communities did not have the luxury of pursuing models that did not work nor did they have the resources to waste on models that did not bring desired results, that contributed to their survival. Coming of Age the Rite Way is a beautiful look at how to develop stronger and more supportive communities for our children.

Blumenkrantz also makes us look at our propensity to develop “programs” as models of service and the flaws in that approach. Programs for youth are often the round hole and the kids are the square pegs. Many programs are designed with one aspect in mind but they often fail to really resonate with the great diversity of personalities, ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, developmental differences and so on that actually walk through the door.

Once programs are developed and implemented, changing them to current needs are like trying to redirect a giant runaway snowball. Too often they try to make the kids fit the model rather than developing strategies that fit the clientele. Many of us who have worked with programs such as No Child Left Behind, DARE, Scared Straight, Just Say No, Evidence Based Programming, and so on learned early that the programs were too limited in scope and not easily adaptable to different settings. People are not a science, and Blumenkrantz reminds us of the art of helping youth and adults work together to build something bigger than the individual parts.

Programs are by necessity competitive and financially driven. Even in the small world of rite of passage practitioners, those with programs are always competing to keep youth coming through the doors. If a California rite of passage program gets a youth for a one week rite of passage experience, for example, some other program lost a potential customer. Some problems cannot be solved, but only prevented in the first place. David Blumenkrantz’ community development approach is brilliant in that it tries to prevent youth problems not by ‘fixing’ kids but getting the adults in their world to support a consistent community growth model.

And Blumenkrantz points out how many present programs are similar to the growth of residential treatment programs developed over 50 years ago or so. I’ve spent most of my 30 years with teens working with adjudicated youth sent to me to be ‘fixed.’ We then send them back to a family and community that has not changed and cannot support the youth’s growth and experience. Sending a teen to a ROP program where he/she will get a great outdoor experience, ritual, challenge and growth sounds great, but we are still sending our kids away to be ‘fixed.” And once again afterward these young people are sent back to a family and community that has no form of support and no common language to share.

Often, the time a program takes to be thought up, developed, proposals written, funding chased, and finally a set approach in play, the problem has morphed. Programs are often hard to change, either by virtue of their model or funding criteria. Blumenkrantz once again helps us to see how a community development model is organic and fluid, adjustable as needed because the community is the ‘program’ and adjusts as needs do. And then what does a kid do that doesn’t fit that particular program model or criteria? Blumenkrantz’ community-oriented rite of passage process, exemplified in the ROPE® is for everyone, young and old, and what better ‘program’ could we really hope for?

For example, while many in modern society are working on the youth rite of passage approach, David reminds us that teens stepping up into newer roles happens around the same time that their parents lives are changing. Historically rites of passage also mediated the potential of a collision of transitions between parent’s mid-life period and adolescence. David writes: “It was never about a generation gap, but the absence of rites of passage.”

David has always remarked that language is consciousness and must be used like surgical instruments in unveiling the essence of experiences. He extensively describes a conception of reciprocity within the language of “youth and community development through rites of passage”, which he also calls “community-oriented rites of passage.” It suggests that rites of passage are not only a story for the individual and transformation, but for the community, too. They are both in the cosmic dance of ritual and its initiation song, that includes many other facets besides the individual. The growth of our youth requires us to reciprocate their efforts and work our own adult challenges. Similarly, in David’s community oriented rite of passage approach the process is beneficial and reciprocal for both age groups, not just the youth.

Coming of Age the Rite Way is, for me, the defining book that all youth workers of any modality should read. Rites of passage are just part of what David has done in a 50-year career helping youth and adults symbiotically come of age together. Even if you’ve never heard of rites of passage related to youth, this book lays out countless ways to help both age groups have a healthy and successful transition together. This book is the gift of those decades and countless interactions with young folks and the adults around them.

Bret Stephenson  MA


  • From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age
  • The Undercurrents of Adolescence: Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency Through Classic Cinema

*You can find more information about Coming of Age the Rite Way as well as how to get a copy HERE

About the Author: Bret Stephenson

Bret Stephenson M.A. is the author of From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age and The Undercurrents of Adolescence: Tracking the Evolution of Modern Adolescence and Delinquency Through Classic Cinema. He has been a counselor of at-risk and high-risk adolescents for twenty-seven years. Bret has worked in residential treatment, clinical counseling agencies, group homes, private counseling, foster parent training, Independent Living Program, and has managed mentoring and tutoring programs.

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