Coming of Age Rituals are a way to help teens transition into the adult world

It's human nature to worry about the next generation.

That's why cultures across the globe have coming-of-age rituals designed to smooth the transition into adulthood and help kids learn what is expected of them, says psychologist Stephen Balfour, who studies rites of passage at Texas A&M University.

"Every generation feels the generation coming after it is in some sort or crisis and seeks to help that upcoming generation find its way into adulthood in a way that was better than the way they did," he said. "The idea is to help our youth become more like us."

In America, these ceremonies continue, with new and sometimes elaborate twists.

Some are as common as middle school or high school graduations, or religious confirmation ceremonies. Others are part of ethnic or religious traditions. A few, like "Rites of Passage," a program for black teenage boys in the United States, are modern attempts to pick up on ancient cultural traditions that have been lost.

Here's a primer on just a handful:

Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah

WHAT IS IT? A Jewish ceremony that celebrates a young person's right to lead religious services, and his or her duty to follow God's commandments. Boys celebrate their bar mitzvah when they turn 13. Bat mitzvahs are of more recent origin and are celebrated when a girl turns either 12 or 13, depending on her family's tradition.

The bar or bat mitzvah normally follows about four years of religious education.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED? Boys typically take a lead role in the service by reading or chanting. In many Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues, girls take part in a similar way. In some Orthodox synagogues, a girl may give a reading in the presence of women only. After the service, the family typically hosts a celebration that can range from cake and punch to a lavish party.

Gifts often include religious items and jewelry, money, books, or donations to charity.

ORIGINS: In early days, the bar mitzvah marked the age at which a boy — not his parents — was held accountable for his deeds.

MODERN TWIST: The first bat mitzvah in the United States was in 1922, when Judith Kaplan took part in services at her father's synagogue. The practice did not become commonplace until the 1960s.


WHAT IS IT? A 15th birthday celebration for young women of Latin American descent.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED? The event usually starts with a Mass at church, followed by a party, which can range from something simple at the church to a formal dinner dance. The young woman often will perform a choreographed dance with 14 female friends, and also dances with her father. A female relative or family friend presents her with her last doll as a symbol of her transition to adulthood.

The guest of honor may exchange flat shoes for a pair of high heels. Gifts typically include jewelry, money or other age-appropriate items.

"It signals a change in status for young women," said Norma E. Cantu, a professor of English and U.S. Latino literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "You are expected to behave differently."

ORIGINS: Celebrated in many Latin American countries, used to mark the transition of a young woman into adulthood. After their 15th birthday, female children were expected to take on the duties of womanhood, including marriage and motherhood.

MODERN TWIST: Quinceañeras are celebrated by many Latino immigrants in the United States. Some girls celebrate on a cruise or at a Disney theme park. Others give the party a theme, like an evening in Paris or a Western-styled party.

Debutante Ball/Coming-Out Party

WHAT IS IT? A young lady's formal introduction to society.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED? A formal dinner dance, often preceded by a social season or series of parties to honor a group of young women.

During the season, they receive tips about etiquette, party planning and networking. At the ball, the debutantes wear white dresses, are formally introduced to the guests and perform choreographed dances with their fathers and escorts. Girls are usually at least 16. They often receive gifts from their parents during the social season, but ball guests are not expected to bring presents.

ORIGINS: The dances were a wealthy family's way of announcing that a daughter was eligible for marriage, and helped introduce her to eligible bachelors.

MODERN TWIST: Today's balls often honor a number of girls — regardless of family wealth — for academic or athletic successes and community service. The balls often serve as charity fund-raisers. They are often associated with the South, but occur elsewhere as well.

'Rites of Passage'

WHAT IS IT? A program designed to help black American boys develop a sense of community, history and social responsibility.

Although it varies from place to place, the program generally emphasizes academics, sex education and black history, and is often designed to deter young people from joining gangs or having casual sex. Programs typically last nine months to a year.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED? After students complete the course, they are honored with a graduation that may include a dinner or party.

Programs may include field trips, mentoring and guest speakers.

Gifts might include family heirlooms, money for college or inspirational items.

ORIGINS: Based on traditional African practices of taking young men out into the bush to educate them about adulthood, "Rites of Passage" programs started in the United States in the 1970s.

MODERN TWIST: Some communities have created programs for young women.

Sweet 16 parties

WHAT IS IT? A girl's 16th birthday party.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED? Parties vary from small and informal to catered events with bands. Many formal events mimic a debutante ball by including a father/daughter dance. Typical gifts are jewelry, books, CDs and other age-appropriate items.

ORIGINS: May have ties to coming-out parties.

MODERN TWIST: The parties fell out of favor in the 1970s when young women considered them old-fashioned and overly feminine. But thanks to the MTV program "My Super Sweet 16," the parties seem to be gaining in popularity. Also, the 16th birthday has taken on added significance in recent times as the legal driving age in many states.