Border Mail Column, Wednesday 2 March 2011
In Western society the stages of our growing up were once very clear with a number of ceremonies, rituals and celebrations marking the milestones of our lives.
Many continue today: babies are still baptised, or introduced to the community with a naming ceremony; the passing into teen years is celebrated and the debutante ball has made a comeback.
But the recognition of the attainment of adulthood, which according to the laws of our land is 18, more often than not is a time of anxiety for parents as they attempt to plan an event which won’t turn into a brawl because of a group of uninvited guests who believe the celebration should be more beerfest than birthday.
It’s easy to look back through rose-coloured glasses to a time when the 21st was the clear sign of your ‘coming of age’ even though you may have been able to legally drink for three years before that time.
Interestingly the change in the legal drinking age came in 1973: the same year the age to vote was also changed to 18.
Still, turning 21 gave you the ‘key to the door’: a symbolic gesture because many of us had our own keys to sharehouses before that significant birthday.
Our thinking and actions didn’t change overnight, but we were aware this was a special time.
Today many young people start drinking before they turn 18; reaching this age for some is no big deal.
It is this attitude which has prompted a number of groups to call for a greater celebration of adulthood; to give this rite of passage more significance and promote in young people a sense of their place in the community.
One of these is the ‘The Rite Journey’ program beginning in Year 9 to promote changes in thinking and behaviour from ‘dependency to responsibility’.
Meanwhile, in the rural community of Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands, meetings have been held to pilot the concept of a ‘Coming of Age Citizenship Ceremony’ or ‘Welcome to Community’ for young people who will be turning 18.
An initiative of the Civil Celebrations Network it aims to celebrate with ritual this milestone to make young people more aware not only of their rights but also of their responsibilities.
They would receive a certificate and possibly other signifiers in a ceremony similar to that of becoming an Australian citizen with some sessions to prepare them for the journey from adolescence to adulthood before the actual celebration.
The ceremony would be for young people of any ethnicity including Indigenous who in a more rural or urban context may have lost touch with their traditional roots.
I remember some years ago speaking to the much loved Indigenous artist and teacher, Eddie Kneebone after he spoke at Wodonga TAFE’s first Celebration of Achievement Awards.
Without notes he related the importance of ceremony for young girls and boys in preparing them to become effective adult members of their communities with a solid foundation of instruction in how to live and the importance of education.
Eddie’s talk came back to me when I heard about the work of those involved in ‘The Rite Journey’ and later the initiative by the Civil Celebrations Network.
But will receiving a certificate make a difference?
The Civil Celebration Network believes so and has developed a submission to the Human Rights Consultative Committee to change 18th birthday celebrations from a ‘peer party’ to the significant marking of their passage into adulthood.
It could be that a more formal event may just be the passport they need to journey positively through the rest of their lives.