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Tim Elmore Headshot

Turning 21 in America

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My son just turned 21. My wife, Pam, and some of his friends took him out for a nice dinner. We celebrated with him his cultural rite of passage. We joked about his legal right to drink... and about how most teens can hardly wait for that birthday.

His birthday, in fact, triggered a thought in me.

In every culture, the people who live there create rites of passage. They are markers that distinguish childhood from adulthood. In many cultures, there are ceremonies for young boys to learn how to be a man. For instance, in many African cultures, boys leave their mothers and go into the village for several days, learning to thatch a roof, hunt an animal, interact with men and use tools and weapons. Even today, the Hebrew culture celebrates the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah for boys and girls who become teens. Regardless of how sacred the ceremony is, it is a rite of passage for those young people. It's about growing up.

But in America, our total focus at this stage and age is on rights. In fact, the first thing that pops into our minds when we think about turning "21" is drinking. It's the rite of passage. Manhood is about what you have the license to do. You can drink now. You can smoke. Sex is legal without talking to parents, or checking into a hotel or renting a car. All kinds of privileges become their possession.

What's Missing?

When I paused to think about it, it dawned on me... there's nothing about personal responsibility, as in past cultures. It's about alcohol or sex, but never coupled with the counterpart of the responsibilities that arrive with our coming of age. While I believe alcohol and sex are to be enjoyed in the proper context, you rarely hear positive stories about young people -- who've just turned 21 -- that involve sex and alcohol. Why? Because rights without responsibility are rarely redemptive. In fact, much of the time, rights minus responsibilities simply create selfish brats. Privileges without price tags don't really help us grow up.

While I love the 21-year-olds I know... I dislike our emphasis on turning 21.

What If...

What if we pondered this issue, and came up with an incredible responsibility that became part of the 21st birthday in America? It would have to be a responsibility that challenged the guy or girl at the heart level; it must engage their passions. It must harness their creativity and gifts. It must be something they've wanted for a while, but only becomes theirs as they come of age. I know some parents who:

• Planned international trips for their kids when they turned a certain age. These were service trips, where they helped people in developing nations.

• Talked about projects in the community to help neighbors, but they reserved them for their kids to engage in when they came of age.

• Purchased power tools for their sons, but only allowed them to use them on a project they wanted to build when they came of age.

You'll have to figure out what works with your young people, but if we want our kids to become healthy adults -- responsibilities and rights must always go together.

Thoughts?