... rite of passage or contemporary comparison?
Can you recall a time when birthdays were not only celebrated, but also commemorated as a 'rite of passage' that marked your growth from a child into a young adult? On your eighth birthday, you may have been presented with a new pair of ice skates or a watch; if your parents thought you would care for them properly. Perhaps it was a new bicycle or pellet gun that marked the day you turned twelve years old, if you were deemed trustworthy and responsible. By the time you reached your sixteenth year, I bet your sights were turned towards any present that commemorated the day you changed from a child into a young woman or man in your parent's eye. When I grew up, birthday presents were small compared to today's standards. These gifts were held in high regard by the giver and conveyed a greater meaning to the receiver than anything money could buy.
If I close my eyes now, I can still smell the fragrance of the dozen long stemmed, red roses and small bottle of perfume that marked my passage into young womanhood. I'll never forget the music my older brother, Bobby made as he whistled, "Jail House Rock" while jingling his new key chain. It held the promise of access to our family's Ford station wagon. The key chain symbolized my father's acceptance of Bobby into the world of men.
Growing up in Melrose, during the 1950's and 1960's, provided me with a strong sense of where I belonged in the hierarchy of my family, the school and our community. If I pushed my boundaries, they simply held fast. There is no question that I could have jotted down any present I wanted on my birthday wish list, but back then every kid knew there was a vast distance between wishing and getting.
I remember wanting everything my brothers and sister had, like a science kit with a real microscope or a subscription to a teen magazine. I knew my parents would say I wasn't old enough for these things yet. I knew in my heart that I wasn't old enough for these things too, but the anticipation of receiving such gifts provided me something to look forward to in the coming years.
When I am invited into conversations with well-meaning parents of young children now, I am astounded by the birthday presents they are giving to their kids. Four wheelers are being presented to six-eight year olds. Many twelve year olds have their own cell phones and if it wasn't for strict motor vehicle laws, most sixteen year olds would be driving their own cars. This age group is apparently given computerized, game systems or their own personal credit cards. These presents are being bought by low to middle income, working parents who are struggling to survive.
When I have asked the significance of these gifts, I was told, "That's what they asked for." Upon questioning whether or not a child was old enough to have a particular gift, the response was, "Oh sure, everyone has one." The question of money was never ventured. If it were, the answer undoubtedly would have been, "I'll just put it on my credit card for now." Needless to say, my stories of receiving age appropriate gifts or the thrill of opening a long-anticipated present had been met with blank stares.
It appears as though somewhere along the time line, the idea of commemorating a child's 'rite of passage' on his/her birthdays within the family circle has been lost to posterity. Houses of worship, schools and communities will probably continue to mark the giant steps a child takes toward young adulthood through graduation ceremonies. I doubt however, that a certificate will have the same edifying and emotional impact on them as an annual birthday present from parents that says, " You've come a long way in just one year. We are proud of you!"
March 6, 2009