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Opinion & Essays - April, 1994 Issue #27 

The "Warrior Child" rites of passage and breaking away
by: Gabriel I. Rivera, TREX, Inc.
Bend, Oregon

(TREX is a 21-day personal growth program for adolescents that is wilderness-based. This article is the second of a series that Gabriel is writing about the adolescent personal growth process.) 

I had been raised Catholic, and when I was 15, I had achieved the right to my first communion. This was a culmination of catechism classes and communion rites which date back to the Spanish Inquisition (when my Aztec ancestors were conquered). This ceremony is meant to acknowledge and celebrate the boy who has arrived at the age of religious responsibility. Like many other young Latinos in east Los Angeles, my "celebration" was dutifully enacted, and my act of civilized doctrine fulfilled. But what of my "uncivilized" spirit, the ancestral call from my Aztec roots, the timeless archetypal energy of my "warrior child? ". This had not been touched. The vehicle for my journey into manhood remained dormant and out of reach. 

Shortly after this religious milepost, when I was 15, as a young Latino in East Los Angeles, I was "jumped into" a gang. This was a brutal beating that came at a crucial time in my life. "You can't touch this," was the message afterwards from the eldest, meaning, "The world is a harsh place and you've shown you can endure and survive the very worst. The courage you've shown here today cannot be taken from you, only relinquished by you." It was a matter of honor and christening. My "warrior child" had been awakened. 

Adolescence is a time of stepping out and taking risks, of proving honor and earning respect. It is a time of yearning for initiation into relationship with something larger than what-has-been, when ancient spirits of empowerment beckon the youthful heart. It is a time when the "warrior child" seeks his own. 

For certain parents and many youth professionals, experiencing a positive shift in their relationship with a defiant teenager starts with understanding the "warrior child." An inherent aspect of the human psyche, the warrior spirit provides an essential strength, pride and courage that every son and daughter intuitively knows is needed in order to break away and proceed down their path towards adulthood. The "warrior child" is one who has discovered their warrior spirit within, and depends upon its consuming, convincing and invincible energy to get them through the "battle" of breaking away and breaking forth on one's own. 

But by what means does a child begin to discover and embrace their warrior spirit? What challenges or lessons are they presented with that call to their character, their soul, and, having met that challenge, teach them that they've got what it takes to walk on their own? 

Traditionally, there are many initiations that celebrate young people throughout the world and are intended to provide a "rites of passage" from which one emerges feeling transformed. But for many American kids in this continued age of wavering traditional values, such ceremony has been taught as being little more than old, sleeping dogmas without teeth. Lacking initiation ceremonies with meaningful symbolism and soul and a purpose of generational bridging, adolescents look then to modern actions and attitudes in the world around them that represent a "rite of passage." They look for indications and validation that they are headed in some meaningful direction, and hopefully the right one. 

In his Iron John, Robert Bly mentions Mircea Eliade's reports of initiation experiences in dozens of cultures all over the world. He points to two events that are common to the initiation of boys: "...the first is a clean break with the parents, after which a novice goes to the forest, desert or wilderness. The second is a wound that the older men gives the boys, which could be scarring of skin, a cut with a knife, a brushing with nettles, a tooth knocked out...." But, as Bly further points out, these injuries have not been given arbitrarily, nor sadistically. "...Initiators of young men in most cultures make sure that the injuries they give do not lead to meaningless pain, but reverberate out from a rich contour of meaning." In other words, the inflicted wounds represent something deeper, and are symbolic in their chosen form and location of injury. And, unlike our modern society, these young men have been honored by their elders and remain an integral part of community. 

This highlights the distinction between initiation as sacred ceremony, and attempts to imitate as occurs with gang- related "rites of passage" beatings. However, in terms of the adolescent personal growth process, gang initiations do address the very real need for rites of passage. Concerned for our children's welfare, this is what we as parents and as a society tend to miss - that a lot of adolescents - male and female - are looking for some means to become the brave and powerful warrior, and the "gang-banger" energy represents that. 

Recently, there has been increasing attention and fear-based reaction surrounding gangs. Previously sleepy suburbs begin to feel "gang-infested," or threatened. Community groups form in an effort to "take back control" and take action that will end the presence of the gang element. I understand that kind of thinking. I understand the fear and anger, and the tendency to want to make the "gang-bangers" go away. I also understand that this is not going to happen, and that attempts to shut them out serves to make them more appealing to the frequently rebellious teenager who, by nature, has always found challenge in the forbidden. 

What parents can do, in this regard, is educate themselves about the gang scene so that they have a better understanding of how they operate and to what extent their child might be at risk of becoming involved. From a personal growth standpoint, learning to reinterpret an adolescent's rebellious behavior, shifting from a control-based zero-tolerance approach to a larger view that embraces the "warrior child" in his or her quest for independence and respect, saves us from becoming accessories to the denial, alienation and anesthetizing of many of our young people. The warrior spirit is strong and enduring. Attempts to squelch it in our children can result in propagating negative choices and potentially injurious lifestyles. 

As a parent, consider your teenager's challenges, sensitivities, victories and defeats. Ask them about their needs, understand that it's okay not to 'fix it.' And most of all, ask them - and yourself - why they are unable to meet those needs for themselves. Encourage the "warrior child" to seek his own. 

(Gabriel's next article will discuss the difference between the "warrior-child", and "gang-bangers.") 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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