Virtually all cultures and societies have an idea or concept for “coming of age.” You’ve likely heard about coming of age ceremonies. Maybe you know that coming of age is a genre of movies and books. Perhaps you’ve heard older generations and members of your family tree reflecting on their own coming of age experiences.
Our Picks for Coming of Age Stories
Popular Coming of Age Films
- Stand by Me Special Edition ($3.99/$12.99)
- Juno ($3.99/$12.99)
- Now and Then ($2.99/$12.99)
- Boyz N the Hood ($3.99/$12.99)
- Thirteen ($3.99/$14.99)
- Mean Girls ($3.99/$14.99)
- Eighth Grade ($3.99/$14.99)
Well-Known Coming of Age Books and Stories
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger ($12.78)
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ($7.28)
- The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton ($8.46)
- The Body by Stephen King ($6.13)
- Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl ($8.99)
- Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown ($12.19)
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott ($11.93)
Jump ahead to these sections:
- ‘Coming of Age’ Meaning
- Coming of Age Ceremonies Around the World
- Popular Coming of Age Films
- Well-Known Coming of Age Books and Stories
That said, you might still have some questions about the topic. Knowing the idea of coming of age is important to all cultures isn’t the same as knowing why. Maybe you’re not even completely sure you know what coming of age truly means.
This guide will help. It explains what coming of age is, describes some examples of coming of age ceremonies throughout the world, and suggests a few popular examples of coming of age films and books which can help you better understand this essential topic.
‘Coming of Age’ Meaning
In general, “coming of age” refers to the period in a person’s life when they make the transition from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of adulthood. Keep in mind, the specific time when coming of age occurs can vary from person to person.
Yes, typically, people have this experience during their teenage years. That’s when they finally shed their childhood self and start to become an adult. Additionally, many consider the onset of puberty to correspond with coming of age.
However, some people face unique experiences that force them to come of age earlier than most. For instance, a child might mature at an early age if they grow up in a warzone or similar environment. Also, cultures and religions throughout the world often perform coming of age rituals at specific points in a child’s life.
Coming of age is such a universal human experience that numerous films, stories, and novels depict it. When famous people write autobiographies or memoirs, they often focus on this period of their lives as well. Songs about aging and general books on aging also tend to relate to the subject.
It’s easy to understand why this time in our lives plays such an important role in our cultures. Coming of age marks a dramatic shift that all people who reach adulthood will experience.
After all, childhood is a unique time. It’s the only period of life when most people are truly free of adult responsibilities. It’s a time when we typically don’t grasp the full realities of aging. It’s a time when life may not have exposed us to experiences that will be common later, such as having a job, being in love, or raising children of our own.
That all changes when we become adults. We start to develop romantic and sexual feelings. Our responsibilities become more important. We also may face some of life’s harsh realities, such as death, for the first time.
All these shifts inevitably change who we are. That’s why just about every culture ritualizes and reflects on coming of age, each in its own way.
Coming of Age Ceremonies Around the World
Coming of age ceremonies are often (but not always) religious traditions. According to certain cultures and religions, young people become mature adults at specific points in life. Ceremonies essentially make the change official. The following are just a few noteworthy examples.
Just remember, a ceremony doesn’t need to be religious to serve the same purpose of a coming of age ritual. For example, many people consider a Sweet Sixteen to be a coming of age ceremony. Graduation parties, weddings, a special fishing trip with Dad, and even the process of moving into your first college dorm are all potential examples of non-religious coming of age ceremonies as well.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
The bar mitzvah (for boys) and bat mitzvah (for girls) is the traditional Jewish coming of age ceremony. It usually occurs when a child reaches the age of 12 or 13.
At this stage, Jewish people believe the sense and mental maturity of adulthood begins to develop, and Jewish law can hold a child responsible for their actions. Following the religious portion of the ceremony, which typically involves such rituals as reading from the Torah, many bar and bat mitzvahs include a large party similar to a wedding.
In many cases, coming of age traditions don’t involve specific ceremonies. Instead, they involve participating in previously forbidden or “off-limits” experiences and activities.
Consider the example of Rumspringa. When Amish children turn 16, their elders typically loosen the rules, allowing them to engage in activities ranging from driving cars to taking trips (without their elders present, but often other Amish teens) to big cities.
Rumspringa also typically allows young Amish people to decide whether they’d prefer to continue living the Amish lifestyle as adults.
The quinceañera is the coming of age ceremony for young Hispanic girls. Traditionally, it involves a mass, followed by some sort of ritualized ceremony (such as removing flats and putting on heels) to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The quinceañera is also an example that illustrates the way coming of age traditions can develop and change over time, as many families now modify the traditional elements of the ceremony according to their liking.
You might not immediately think of a Senior Prom as a coming of age “ritual,” but that’s precisely what it has always been. In fact, the first proms in the United States essentially served the same purpose as debutante balls.
Informally, many have also viewed the prom as a time when young adults would first explore such adult experiences as taking the family car out and attending “grown-up” social gatherings. Now, the prom serves as a reminder to many high school students that they are moving forward to the next chapter in their lives and should take this opportunity to celebrate the experiences they have already had.
A Sweet 16 birthday party is essentially the American equivalent of a quinceañera. However, it’s important to note that a quinceañera has more traditional roots.
That’s not to say a Sweet 16 is a less “significant” coming of age ritual. In most of the US, 16 is when someone can legally get a license to drive a car. This new adult freedom (and responsibility) is symbolic for many American teens and their parents, reminding them that they are growing up and becoming adults. To some, a Sweet 16 may also symbolically mark the last birthday party of childhood.
Inuit hunting rituals
On North Baffin Island, in Canada, Inuit fathers typically take their sons out into the wilderness when they appear strong enough to accompany their fathers on hunts. This usually occurs when a boy is around 11 or 12.
These hunts test the endurance of the young men, who must spend long periods in extremely harsh conditions throughout the experience. The practice continues among Inuits who believe it is important to keep knowledge of traditional hunting skills alive among their people. The hunt also serves as a coming of age ritual for young Inuit boys as they begin the transition to adulthood.
In Japan, a person becomes an adult (with various adult freedoms and responsibilities) at 20. Thus, on the second Monday of January, any young Japanese man or woman who turned 20 the year before can participate in Seijin-no-Hi, which roughly translates to Coming of Age Day.
During this celebration, participants dress up in their best attire, receive gifts, attend public speeches by major local government figures, and party with friends and family. Seijin-no-Hi essentially serves as a welcoming party for new members of adult society.
Popular Coming of Age Films
As you become an adult, you experience coming of age. That’s a key reason so many filmmakers depict it. They know audiences will be able to relate, and they know this genre allows them to tell a genuinely emotional story.
Popular coming of age films include (but are certainly not limited to):
Stand by Me
The ‘80s had its fair share of movies about young people beginning to become adults. However, few are as widely remembered and celebrated as this classic.
Stand by Me beautifully depicts what happens when young boys, each struggling with their own painful experiences (from the recent death of a sibling to an abusive household), face the reality that their boyhood (and with it, their friendship) can’t and won’t last forever.
Sometimes, we reach adulthood naturally. The process may occur in stages. Sometimes, life experiences force us to mature earlier than we expected. Such is the case in Juno, when an unexpected pregnancy introduces a teenage girl to the life of an adult.
Now and Then
One of the best ways to show the dramatic shift that occurs during the coming of age is to focus on two timelines. Now and Then chronicles the changing lives of four young girls, while also depicting them as adults. The result is a touching exploration of what does (and does not) change when we grow up.
Boyz N the Hood
Some of the most enduring coming of age movies (and books) provide the audience with a glimpse into how a person's environment can play a significant role in the experiences that shape them as they grow up.
Consider the example of Boyz n the Hood, which depicts three young friends' struggles growing up on the violent streets of South Central Los Angeles. In Stand By Me, four kids spend an entire movie trekking miles upon miles to eventually see a dead body. In Boyz n the Hood, child characters go to see a dead body within the film's first 15 minutes.
Coming of age often involves a changing of ways. Thirteen depicts this truth strikingly.
Director and co-screenwriter Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote the screenplay in about six days with the help of Nikki Reed. Reed, who was 14 at the time she helped write the screenplay, referenced her own experiences as a source of inspiration for the movie. The story follows a “good girl” abandoning her well-behaved and academically-minded identity to be one of the cool kids, even if that means indulging in a world of sex and drugs. It’s an experience many young teenagers who feel the pressure to fit in can relate to.
Mean Girls has (deservedly) earned a reputation for being one of the funniest and most biting explorations of high school life in recent years. As such, it’s easy to forget the movie also qualifies as a coming of age film.
Coming of age stories often show how a protagonist discards their immature ways to become a more competent and confident adult, ready to face the next stage in life. The characters in Mean Girls undergo such a transformation, learning to treat one another with genuine kindness and respect instead of allowing jealousy and rivalries to dominate them.
Some coming of age stories and movies track a character’s progress through several early years of life. Others choose one focal point to examine how certain formative experiences can influence how we change and grow.
Comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade, is a remarkably honest but very funny investigation of the numerous awkward (and sometimes troubling) experiences a young girl has. It explores her struggles to find herself and her friends at a time in life when being accepted is often someone’s top priority. It’s a newer movie, but one that will earn its status as a classic.
Well-Known Coming of Age Books and Stories
Filmmakers aren’t the only ones telling stories about the process of growing from a child into an adult. Authors have touched on this subject many times as well, in books such as:
The Catcher in the Rye
Coming of age can be painful. Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of this high school English class staple, spends most of the book trying his best to avoid the pain that comes with change. Of course, he’s unable to do so and instead has to accept that coming of age is virtually unavoidable.
The House on Mango Street
Some coming of age novels and films illustrate how specific experiences trigger the onset of maturity. Others explore how the coming of age is often a slow process that occurs over time.
For example, in the semi-autobiographical The House on Mango Street, author Sandra Cisneros shares a series of vignettes about an impoverished young girl growing up in Chicago. Eventually, it becomes clear that these vignettes tell a coming of age story.
Again, coming of age can often involve some degree of pain or tragedy. Difficult life experiences force us to cope with realities that no child can bear without losing some degree of innocence. The Outsiders touches on this, showing how a group of friends develops when one of their own dies.
The Body is the Stephen King short story/novella upon which Stand by Me is based. Its plot essentially mirrors that of the cinematic adaptation that would follow. However, while The Body never becomes an absolute horror story, in true Stephen King fashion, its ending is slightly bleaker than the film’s.
To explain how would spoil the story. The difference between the film’s ending and the story’s isn’t particularly substantial, but the story’s conclusion does provide additional information about the fates of certain characters that serves as a reminder of the pains that can come with the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Boy: Tales of Childhood
Roald Dahl’s most well-known books may be works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, but fans of the author should also make a point of reading Boy, which chronicles Dahl’s early experiences with childhood tragedy (his sister died of appendicitis when he was three, his father of pneumonia just a few weeks later), his days as a mischievous schoolboy, all leading up to his early adulthood, ending right before the onset of World War II, in which Dahl would eventually serve. The book provides a fascinating insight into the experiences that shaped a beloved author’s view of the world.
Rita Mae Brown’s debut novel Rubyfruit Jungle, which offers a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own life experiences, generated significant controversy upon its initial release in 1973. This is due to the fairly open way in which the novel portrayed lesbianism. Such honest depictions of homosexuality (particularly among youths) was not common in popular literature at this time.
The best coming of age novels are often those which explore how one’s personal identity can determine what they will experience growing up. While the generalities of growing into maturity may include some common experiences we must all go through, the specifics of one person’s experiences can be very different from those of someone else.
Lists of the strongest coming of age novels often mention Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women, and for good reason. This classic may feature a setting that is unfamiliar to any of today’s readers, but its themes and characters continue to resonate due to their essential timelessness.
The novel is also unique among coming of age works thanks to the way it addresses different stages of maturity and growth by touching on the lives of several characters instead of focusing solely on one character’s experiences and perspectives. This results in a nuanced coming of age story that continues to make an impact on readers.
Life Always Changes
Any reasonably long life will involve seemingly non-stop change. Coming of age is often the first period in our lives when we truly recognize it.
However, while these changes can be painful, they can also be positive. Yes, growing up may mean losing childhood’s innocence, but it also involves gaining the confidence and richness of life that is only possible in adulthood.
- “Bar and Bat Mitzvah.” Chabad.org, Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, Chabad.org
- Gonzalez, Marybel. “The Quinceañera, a Rite of Passage in Transition.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 4 June 2016, Nytimes.com
- Shachtman, Tom. “Rumspringa: Amish Teens Venture into Modern Vices.” NPR, NPR, 7 June 2006, Npr.org