Rituals of Adulthood and Equality?

After participating in The White House Youth Round Table discussion last month I started thinking about more than just politics. It forced me to evaluate who we as a community consider juvenile or adult and how we transition from one stage to another. In the church we have very clear guidelines for who is considered a youth– anyone between the ages of 12-18 years old. Never before have I thought this was a truncated measure until I realized that in the greater US the term youth encapsulates a much broader demographic. On the one hand, our rigid demarcations of adulthood—beginning at 18 months and slowly graduating to new stages alongside your age mates until you are 18 years old—are a phenomenal example of the power that rituals have in helping people understand, transition through, and embody their role in society. They help children understand the privileges and responsibilities of aging in stable and predictable increments, without which girls tend to mature too fast and boys too slow.

On the other hand, our notions of youth, adulthood, and progression in the church are extremely rigid and based on roles that not everyone has access to. For example, getting married, becoming a parent, receiving leadership callings, etc. are all the life stages that move someone from a juvenile to an adult state; from someone being taught to someone doing the teaching. What then of the men and women who never move through these rituals of adulthood? Are they at different “developmental” stages in our church? Can they ever be considered fully equal?

As an anthropologist this is a difficult conundrum. One of my favorite things about the gospel is that it provides rituals otherwise unavailable in American society. Sure my kids can join a soccer league and find age mates, but a diverse array of kids that meet once or twice weekly for 18 years and learn incremental responsibilities and privileges along the way, never. From initiation to the group at baptism, to funeral rites at death our religion provides ample and helpful rituals of education, transition, and identity. While I detest the gender specific topics introduced in most activity days and scouting programs and think that we should either support boy/girl scouts equally or only focus on boy/girl activity days programs, I am nonetheless overjoyed that I belong to a religion that takes pre-youth seriously. Children between the ages of 8-12 are formulating core pieces of their identity. They need structure, instruction, and space to practice their independence from familial identity. I know of no other program (besides education) that gives pre-youth as much individual out-of-the home social learning opportunities.

Similarly, church youth programs are fantastic examples of didactic transition. Each new stage is accompanied by constant explanation and increased rights and responsibilities. While I take issue with much of the gender specific content, the Duty to God and Personal Progress programs are phenomenal examples of rituals of adulthood. They prevent against the Bratz® (hyper sexualization and expedited maturity of girls) and Peter Pan (co-dependence and prolonged immaturity of boys) behaviors in American youth culture. Missions are another example of an incredibly powerful and persuasive ritual available in the church and entire dissertations could be written on their ability to foster independence and change while inculcating the basic tenets of community, belief, and obedience.

The rituals of our temple are perfect examples of separation, liminality, and reintegration. They not only teach using symbolism, which allows for multiple meanings and individual application, but they provide an entirely unique and daily reminder of the “new” person that you have become. Include the rituals of sacrament, tithing, fasting, fast offering, blessings, temple recommend interviews, prayer, scripture study, family home evening, and church attendance and we have got one of the most ritual heavy communities in America today.

Interestingly, it could be argued that we likewise view not only the marriage ceremony but marriage itself as ritual of adulthood in our religion. Rather than focusing on the union of two specific individual people, LDS marriage is often taught as an end in and of itself; the people are largely interchangeable. It is a rite where the privilege of sex is balanced with the obligations of temple covenants. As this is usually the last public ritual that a woman experiences in our culture (births of children and higher callings, i.e. mission president, apostle, area authority, etc. are experienced with public displays of male recognition, priesthood ordinance, and transition) as such, it should come as no surprise that marriage is often the focal point of LDS women’s lives. This focus on a relatively early period of a woman’s development is the natural consequence of no (or arguably few) formalized rituals for women in the church after marriage.

For men, the rituals of priesthood ordination are steady indications of acceptance, transition, and progression. They begin at age twelve with the (albeit relatively small) potential to continue until receiving the keys of prophecy and revelation as an apostle and prophet. Because of the hierarchal nature of these privileges and responsibilities, men often tend to judge and be judged based on the status of each role; a natural consequence of an all male leadership organization with limited positions.

However, we often don’t think of the church in these terms. I once had a colleague from Tibet who was astounded by our home and visiting teaching programs and their simplicity and potential for good. I was surprised by his intensity of admiration. To me they were quite banal and, sadly, I am often more focused on how they have become monthly checklists for ones’ commitment to the gospel and institutionally sanctioned gossip than taking the time to acknowledge its structural integrity. A perfectly run home and visiting teaching program would meet the needs of and connect a community in webs of mutual empathy that would rival any social structure. It is a brilliant program and I needed someone else to point that out because I was too focused on the imperfections of the content. This post is about taking the time to recognize and discuss the structure of the church by highlighting one specific aspect—our use of rituals in teaching and applying gospel principles to lived experience.

I take great pride in all of the rituals of my people. I know the impact that they have on individuals and cultures. I know the difference they make in helping children transition into adolescence and through adulthood. I champion the abundant and consistent use of rituals in teaching principles and taking the fear and trepidation out of change by gradually increasing responsibility and privilege. I think this is a genius pattern that we should emulate in our families. Any period of transition is made easier with rituals. They help us accept and become the new identity (i.e. in theory graduations, marriage rites, and funerals don’t “do” anything, but in practice they make a considerable difference in one’s ability to leave behind the old self and commit to the new). I cannot say enough about the power of ritual in facilitating change and inculcating important principles.

As such, I have a three part discussion. First, how can we increase the use of rituals in our homes? What ways have you attempted to teach principles (such as work ethic, financial responsibility, independence, etc) or facilitate change (for example, moving) by introducing rituals (i.e. making an allowance chart, creating a tradition, or every birthday giving new privileges and responsibilities, etc)? What rituals have helped you transition into new life stages?

Second, what are the implications of each ritual being symbolic of a changed state and women participating in markedly fewer rituals in the church? For example, by power of position the voice of male leaders has more weight than the equivalently aged women (for example, wives of mission presidents, apostles, and area authorities do not go through the same rituals, are not given the same titles, and do not share the same privileges nor responsibilities as their husbands), thus, how can men and women be at the same stages of development or be seen as equal until we have similar numbers of women in positions of didactic leadership?

Finally, what about adults who never transition through our culture’s rituals of adulthood (marriage, kids, leadership positions, etc)? How does this emphasis on highly-ritualized stages of development harm their identity? And equality? What can we do to change that?


  1. “Rather than focusing on the union of two specific individual people, LDS marriage is often taught as an end in and of itself; the people are largely interchangeable.”
    This is so perceptive, and it’s a damning indictment of marriage rhetoric in the church. (I don’t want to threadjack, so I’ll stop there, but I did want to point out how much that resonated with me.)

    As far as your questions go, I’m not really sure. I’ve never been one who enjoys ritual. It just doesn’t work for me. I almost skipped my undergraduate graduation because I didn’t care. I cared about the degree, but not about the ceremony. (I went because my dad said I had to. He paid for the degree, so it was a reasonable request.)

    If I marry, I want a quiet ceremony with family and maybe a few close friends and no reception. I hate LDS wedding receptions where anybody who has even a third degree connection to either the bride or the groom feels entitled to come to the cultural hall and go shake everyone’s hands. I wonder if it’s some subconscious rebellion against a woman’s worth being defined by her marital status. (Or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.)

    • Kerri, it’s not just the marriage receptions, where virtual “unknowns” crawl out of the woodwork to attend & “chow down” on whatever goodies are there. My Mother’s cousins, who I really didn’t know, decided to attend our Wedding Ceremony at the Temple. But, they decide to take in an Endowment session first. So, they came traipsing in late by about 10 minutes into the Sealing.

      • I’ve attended plenty of LDS weddings and receptions in my life and NEVER have I known of either of these practices.

        People INVITING THEMSELVES to the reception? INVITING THEMSELVES to a sealing (much less being late!)?


        Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the same church, from the stories I hear…

  2. Keri,
    You’re not a curmudgeon. I also am not the biggest fan of the LDS wedding reception. 😀
    As to the questions – particularly the last one, For a while, I began to feel like I was a failure, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t going on a mission, and it seemed like every week one of my friends (or a friend’s little sister) was getting married. But then my friends started coming back from their missions and I stopped feeling so alone. I also switched to a singles ward from my family ward, which helped me gain a little autonomy and actually feel more like an adult. Now in my mid 20s I have a better idea of who I am, and I currently feel great about myself. I actually have a pretty awesome ward where the bishop is really encouraging people (either men or women, but it’s mostly women) to get their patriarchal blessing (which I hadn’t done ’til I went there) and to think about going to the temple for the first time. It’s actually quite supportive. And even though it’s a single’s ward – and their are often talks about getting married and dating and whatnot – most of my friends and I just grin at each other when those talks come up, because we’re not necessarily aiming for that right now. Most of us are aiming for our Master’s degree.

    Sorry this post kind of meandered, but the point was, I think that it depends on your ward. When I was in my family ward I felt stifled and like I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t planning a mission or a marriage. And I know that some singles wards are awful, but mine was great and allowed me to grow.

  3. Great post, Whoa-man. Reading it has given me a renewed appreciation of Mormon ritual, which I tend to not be excited about at all. I think a lot of that stems from the fact that women are not included in a lot of these rituals. For example, my husband was just made a high priest, and there was a get together at my house that included a handful of men and just my mother in law and me. Women can never be a recipient of such a thing. or the ordinance-doer, and it makes me feel rather sad for all my righteous female colleagues who would be magnificent high priests and bishops.

    You mentioned a lot of things in your posts that are gender inclusive rituals. I need to take a look at that and see what I can incorporate in good conscience into my family.

    And I agree that it’s a problem to tie these rituals in with development as a human being. That’s entirely unfair to those who never marry, etc. We need to develop a new narrative about singleness, one that acknowledges all the growth that happens when one charts a life independently.

    • I’ve thought a lot about the gender inequality with coming-of-age rituals in the church: Men turn 18, become elders, go off on missions. Women turn 18… and then… maybe get married? maybe go to school? stick around long enough to go on a mission at 21? maybe get lost somewhere?

      I wonder if that empty period is where lots of women fall through the cracks. I have absolutely no statistics or anything, so don’t quote me on anything. But there’s no real “next step.” I think lowering the mission age for women would be a great way for the Church to retain young women. But again- not statistics or evidence for that thought. Just thinking aloud…

      • Great thoughts, TopHat. President Hinckley said that the age was kept higher for women so fewer would go. So if it is the case as you speculate that the Church not offering the opportunity to serve a mission at a younger age to women is leading them to leave the Church more (and I think it makes a lot of sense) then it’s very telling about the Church’s priorities. It’s more important to make sure women don’t serve missions too much (because that will what, reduce the number of children they have? make the elders feel bad?) than that women actually be given an incentive to stay in the Church at all.

  4. I guess for me the excitement and interest come in seeing how important ritual is and realizing that our religion provides many instances of that, particularly for youth (which have high rates of ritual cross-culturally to get them through that crazy period of time, think of puberty initiations, rites of passage, and/or vision quests). The curmudgeon in me, however, wants to point out that many of those rituals exclude women and nontraditional families and that does great damage to their personhood in the church.

    Caroline, one way that I want to apply this to my family is by creating our own rituals. Picking out the good and leaving the bad. I want to have different privileges and responsibilities that comes with each birthday and to make a big deal of it. I think these overt and explicit descriptions of what is expected help kids to both rise to the occasion as well as experiences less anxiety while going through those transitions of growing up.

    • It is interesting that you want to incorporate this into your children’s lives on each birthday. My parents tended to do that anyway. There were definite privileges and responsibilities that were extended to us as with each birthday. I never thought about it in the same context as ritual, but it did have a similar affect of us knowing what behaviors were expected of us, and how those behaviors came with certain rewards.

  5. What an insightful post. I had two thoughts. First, male rituals during adolescence are usually more public than rituals for females. For example, bishops will bring new deacons up to the stand for sustaining and will announce the deacon, teacher, and priest quorum presidency members for sustaining. I think there is something important about the community support for an individual’s growth. I remember that even as a YW, I found it odd that the YM presidencies were announced for sustaining, but the YW presidencies were not. As an adult, I am still puzzled by this practice. After all, we sustain all adult women in their callings in sacrament meeting, so why would we exculde these specific callings for women? One thing our current bishop does is bring both YM and YW up to the stand to announce when they are moving to a new class and he announces the YW youth presidencies although we don’t sustian them.

    Another thought that I had was that the age demographics of a ward can have a huge impact on your ability to progress and have leadership opportunities. I have been in some wards where only the older ladies are called be to the higher ranked callings for women. As a younger woman in these wards, sometimes I felt like I wasn’t viewed as an adult or taken seriously. I always appreciate wards that have a mix of older and younger women in presidencies.

    • I agree with Brooke, that younger women are not taken seriously at church. As I entered a chapel as a YSA with a group of similar aged women, a member of the Bishopric said, “Good morning, girls! How are you today?” I responded with, “Just fine… how are you BOYS doing today?” He looked shocked, but said, “point taken.” The shocking thing was that the women I was with immediatly distanced themselves from me… I am not in touch with any of them anymore.

      And- to be honest, I was sustained in sacrament meeting as a Beehive President, and in my last branch, the Branch President presented the young women for sustaining in their respective offices. Having grown up and now live in “the mission field”. I wonder womens place in the church lessens in areas where there are high percentages of Mormons, whereas in the “mission field” active members are better appreciated and recognised- regardless of sex, because they are in a minority situation?

    • Beatrice I’ve never noticed or thought about that. Why would Young Men and Young Women be treated differently in any way? What is more important about a YM presidency that it needs to be being publicly acknowledged and sustained and a YW one doesn’t? So strange. I’m confused.

      • I had never seen this before, but it happened at our most recent ward conference. It bothered me so much that I looked it up in the handbook, because I was pretty sure that it had been done incorrectly. I was right. NONE of the YW or YM presidencies are supposed to be sustained in sacrament meeting; the sustainings are supposed to be done by class/quorum members in their individual meetings. I really wish that people would take the time to follow actual policy, rather than misguided traditions. It won’t resolve all inequalities within the church, but it would be a helpful place to start.

  6. Interesting to note that has a piece posted right now on still not feeling like a grown-up even when you *do* have the marriage/kids leadership callings and have gone through all the rituals.

  7. In line with Leona’s comment, there’s also the Being a 30 Something Single in the Church series over at Zelophehad’s Daughters. The most recent entry has, in the comments, a classic case of telling singles that of course they’re grown up while protesting that of course singles aren’t grown up till they’re married.

  8. a lot of interesting points…

    i guess a sort-of terrible illustration of all this is how my grandmother drew up the seating chart for christmas dinner last year, with my unmarried sister and i and our 30-yr-old divorced cousin at the childrens table, while his 19-yr-old sister was seated with the other “adults” b/c she brought her boyfriend…

    but yes, given how strongly priesthood patriarchy has been institutionalized in the modern church, it is no wonder to me that women are so often excluded from ritualized development (perhaps this is why i sought my endowment at age 20, independent of marriage and mission?). but at least we’re not getting married off at 14 as a 5th wife anymore…right? (talk about truncated development)

    while i agree whole-heartedly that there is a seriously misplaced emphasis on marriage as an arbitrary developmental transition ritual in mormon culture, i have to say, until i was in a stable, loving, committed, functional relationship i think i was always going to be a bit developmentally truncated. there’s just things i’ve learned–mostly incredibly mundane normal things!–that i genuinely believe i couldn’t have learned any other way. i say that so hesitantly, because i hate the way it sounds to my formerly YSA ears (so patronizing…).

    but i relish in it, admittedly. because i believed for so long that i could never have it, would never be able to grow again like this. i loved practicing mormonism deeply, but coming-out was one of the best decisions i have ever made. so in a strange ironic way, i guess i can support the idea of marriage as a developmental ritual. whaaaaaa 😉

  9. When I was single and 21, I attended a memorable family Easter egg hunt. I am the oldest female cousin on that side of the family, and my sister (age 20) and next oldest female cousin (age 19) were already married. My older male cousins were single returned missionaries. No one invited any of them to hunt eggs, but everyone kept urging me to join the hunt with the kids. I finally explained that I was too old to hunt eggs, given that I was now of legal drinking age. They were confused. “You don’t drink.”

    • “You don’t drink.” – lol!

      I didn’t marry until I was 25, so I can relate to all the younger cousins and siblings getting married first and “moving up.” Now I’m 30 without children and in some ways it’s even more of an arrested development than being single was in terms of my church progression.

  10. Do Mormons have an aversion to young adulthood? Why is it such a bad thing to take time to explore yourself, the world. Instead males are pushed from being naive boys to highly ‘responsible’ elders, husbands and dads. Girls surrender much of their identity and ambition as soon as they’re married, usually in their early 20s. Life should be able to take its course a little more.

    • Do mormons have an aversion to young adulthood? Yes, I think they do. Because I think they consider that period ripe for sin. Don’t get married right away? You’ll break the law of chastity, or get used to being single and then never marry. You’ll become too selfish, too picky, to used to having freedom. You’ll get involved in “worldly” things – kids keep you from doing all the worldly things out there, parties, bars, dances, movies, actually most any kind of social activity at all.

      Because, believe me, I’ve found that marrying and having children (the kids most of all) is an instant revocation of your freedom. I was 27 when my son was born and it has been very hard for me to adjust, where as the people who went from being kids to parents and never tasted that freedom… well maybe it’s hard for them in different ways.

      • Do mormons have an aversion to young adulthood? Yes, I think they do. Because I think they consider that period ripe for sin.

        I think you’re exactly right, MJK. With all the lamenting of people postponing marriage by GAs, it seems clear that they see early marriage as a way of skipping people past the potentially dangerous young adult period. By “potentially dangerous” I mean like what you said about getting comfortable being single, enjoying education perhaps a bit too much (it’s like loud laughter–you can laugh, but if you enjoy it too much it’s evil), etc. And of course sex. I think they have a point there, but given Whoa-man’s excellent point about marriage being an end in itself with the people being interchangeable, it seems like this might be rushing things and lead people to marry people they’re really not well suited for just because that’s the ritual you have to go through to have approved sex.

  11. I am a never-married, childless 39 year old woman. I feel sad sometimes about not having gone through life’s traditional rites of passage because it’s fun to share common experiences with others in your community (e.g., “When I was pregnant with my first…” and “I met my husband…”), but I’ve tried to make my own. When I graduated with my masters from Harvard, I treated the ceremony and celebration much like a wedding. I ordered announcements, had a luncheon, etc. To this day, it is one of the happiest days of my life. When I started my business, I asked a friend to dedicate the space. For me, that formality, for some reason, symbolized, “Okay, ready to go forward.”

    A particular rite of passage in my extended family is that upon marriage, my grandmother buys you an ebelskiever pan (a Danish thing). At age 32, I bought my own and began having monthly Danish brunches for my friends. To this day, I make the best ebelskiever in my family – and I’m not married! Who would have thought? 😉

    My point, no matter your “station” in life, take your rites of passage into your own hands, and make your community/family/friends part of the experience.

    • That’s great that you bought your own pan. In my family when you marry your get a painting or two that my grandma made… I wonder if I can pick mine up “early” if I happen to buy my own place before I marry… if I marry. hmmm…

    • I love that you bought your own pan. That’s a great way to claim your singleness as just as good as marriedness.

      Recently, I’ve decided to start saving for a house. Growing up, it seemed to me that buying a house was for married people. (Probably because where I live, it nearly requires two incomes to even afford a house.) However, I’ve decided that I’m not going to be an eternal renter just because I’m single. It’s going to be several years before I’m in a position (financially and career-wise) to buy, but even setting aside a small amount each month is empowering.

    • I LOVE this comment and the idea of creating our own rituals. That is what I learned from writing this post and trying to apply it to my life. Change is really hard. To make it both easier and more memorable it is important that we create little rituals. I love your graduation ritual, your dedication, and your pan. I think they are so important. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Why don’t women have menopause parties? Just a thought . . .

    I think identity, both self-assigned and outwardly-assigned, is definitely harmed with these checkmark points we have as Mormons, and even as a broader societal circle. No matter how many years go by and I remain a single, I still hear people refer to us as “youth,” and I still bristle. I’m no more a youth than the woman next to me who married at 20 and already has 3 kids at age 25. I find the best way to get away from my annoyance at being treated as non-adult is to be good friends with those who are at the stage of life that I should traditionally be at now. But there will always be little things that keep me from really being a part of that world. I’m stunted, as it were.

    I love the Master’s degree party. Why didn’t I think of that? Sigh. I keep thinking that it makes no sense that only people getting married get help starting a household. I guess I’ll just have to take matters into my own hands. I’ve seen women who jokingly sent out a non-wedding wedding reception invitation, and that seems to be the only way to get people to realize what they’re aiming for. Kind of sad.

  13. What a great, insightful post. I appreciate the structure of the LDS church in training and developing the rising generation, and if you follow the plan it works wonderfully … to a point. However when the process is stunted, it’s very hard to reconcile. I had no plan for my life beyond getting married and becoming a mother … but that didn’t happen at 18 in college or 21 when I went through the temple or at 26 when I was called to be Relief Society president for the second time or 31 when I officially aged out of the young single adult program. It’s increasingly difficult to keep moving forward in a society that tells me I alone will never be enough. I’ve built an incredible life, and am just now getting to a point where I’m allowing myself to enjoy it. The weird dichotomy is the more I learn to be happy, the less drive I feel to get married and have kids, which makes me wonder if I ever really wanted that, or I just expected myself to want that based on the culture that produced me.

    While there are individual instances where I feel included, respected and appreciated, the LDS culture as a whole does not allow for people who don’t fall into the prescribed method of becoming an adult. And I think that’s why we’re losing a generation. I don’t know how to fix this, but I think open dialogue is an excellent first step.

  14. A ritual is a set of actions usually performed because of the symbolic value. (I am an engineer and not an anthropologist. Please excuse the common usage of the word “ritual.”) The problem with characterizing the LDS progression to adulthood as ritual is that it is not orthodox to consider these transitions symbolic.

    Baptism is literally required for salvation. Priesthood ordination literally provides the young man with God’s power and authority. Finishing Personal Progress or becoming an Eagle Scout literally make you a good and worthy LDS youth. The endowment literally gives you the secret/sacred knowledge to enter the Celestial Kingdom. And marriage/sealing literally allows you to be exhalted.

    If you fit the mold, then this literalness is a blessing and comfort like no other. If you deviate willfully or cannot conform, then it is a curse.

    I have been to non-Mormon churches where they have options. Those who enjoy the traditional liturgical service can attend church at one time. Those who want something more modern can attend at a different time. I think these denominations appreciate their ritualized traditions, but also acknowledge that they are not literally required for their religious practice. I think this makes it a little easier for a broader array of paths.

    If religion is path-finding, the mainline LDS tradition only provides a single path. If the path works for you, then it is great. If it doesn’t, then you will probably feel lost or out of place a lot. It’s like that one-size-fits-all t-shirt that never really fits anybody.

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