On Becoming

Passage into womanhood

Posted Sep 18, 2014

A key developmental task in late childhood and early adolescence is establishing an identity to call one’s own. Critically, young people – whether they know it or not – begin their search for meaning across multiple spheres including educational, social, sexual and, eventually, vocational. Indeed, noted developmental psychologist Erik Erikson referred to this stage of development as “identity formation versus role confusion,” framing it as a time of synthesizing preceding growth while anticipating future opportunities and challenges.

In short, they are all becoming. Someone and something.

During earlier American culture, this movement toward adulthood was recognized through ritualistic celebrations of transition to newfound independence in the family and community. Many – if not most – of those rites of passage have disappeared from the developmental landscape.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, in an increasingly complex, dispersed, and fast-paced society, summer camp remains one of the final frontiers for young people seeking formal affirmation of advancing maturity and, ultimately, initiation into adulthood. Through structured, goal-oriented activities taught and supervised by authority figures and role models, children at camp benefit from communal observance of achievement — whether in small-group or all-camp settings (Wallace, Camping Magazine 2006).

Sounds good. But there may be something larger at play.

In his seminal 2005 Op-Ed in The Boston Globe, psychologist Michael Thompson detailed his in-flight conversation with a teenage boy on his way to summer camp. The focus of that discussion pertained primarily to the boy’s search for meaning and manhood, something he found in the unique environment of summer camp and apart from school and sports. Among the lessons learned through his camp experiences were “taking responsibility … taking things you’ve learned from others and creating your own self.”

What might that process look like for a teenage girl at summer camp? Emma Rich, a 16-year-old camper and high school junior, has some answers. Like the boy sitting on the plane next to Michael, Emma had the misfortune of having a psychologist peppering her with questions about growing up.

I shared Michael’s piece with Emma and asked her questions similar to his. Do you consider yourself to be a woman? What is your definition of womanhood? What do you do between the last week of June and sometime in August that helps make you a woman? Don’t you already get that through school or sports? What test do you have to pass to become a woman, and who will be able to recognize that you have reached that point?

Here’s what she had to say.

My personal concept of womanhood is defined by responsibility, self-determination and independence. At this stage in my life, I consider myself to be going through the transition from being an adolescent, dependent on my parents, to an autonomous and self-propelled young woman.

I am evolving. I am a work in progress.

I have moved from middle school to high school, and the nature of my relationships with my family and friends is changing.

For the past six years, I have spent my summers at a sleep-away camp and progressed from being a camper to a junior counselor. Each summer, I gain more independence and have the chance to think about, and make decisions about, my path and how those decisions will affect me in the long run.

I took on more responsibility for myself and, during the last three summers, for other campers.

The younger campers in my charge have taught me what it means to be responsible for a person other than myself. While I have learned what it means to be responsible and self-disciplined at school, it does not compare to being responsible for someone else’s well-being.

Womanhood is not necessarily defined by one major event that signifies everything you stand for but rather by a combination of opportunities to express maturity and responsibility. While these rites of passage are not ones that can be “seen,” they can be recognized in personal interactions and growth. These are days in which we discover who we are and start to lay the foundation and direction for whom we will become.

As Michael found in conversation with the boy on the plane, I was struck by Emma’s perspective on the passage to adulthood and some of the things that propel it at summer camp.

Stephen Gray Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to promoting positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.

Emma S. Rich attends Millennium High School in New York City and is a rising fourth-year junior counselor at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts.

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