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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Turning 21 in America

Last week I shared with the Huffington Post community, “Turning 21 in America“. I’ve decided to make that article the blog post for today as well. Enjoy!

My son just turned 21. My wife, Pam, and some of his friends took him out for a nice dinner. We celebrated with him his cultural rite of passage. We joked about his legal right to drink… and about how most teens can hardly wait for that birthday.

His birthday, in fact, triggered a thought in me.

turning 21

In every culture, the people who live there create rites of passage. They are markers that distinguish childhood from adulthood. In many cultures, there are ceremonies for young boys to learn how to be a man. For instance, in many African cultures, boys leave their mothers and go into the village for several days, learning to thatch a roof, hunt an animal, interact with men and use tools and weapons. Even today, the Hebrew culture celebrates the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah for boys and girls who become teens. Regardless of how sacred the ceremony is, it is a rite of passage for those young people. It’s about growing up.

But in America, our total focus at this stage and age is on rights. In fact, the first thing that pops into our minds when we think about turning “21” is drinking. It’s the rite of passage. Manhood is about what you have the license to do. You can drink now. You can smoke. Sex is legal without talking to parents, or checking into a hotel or renting a car. All kinds of privileges become their possession.

What’s Missing?

When I paused to think about it, it dawned on me… there’s nothing about personal responsibility, as in past cultures. It’s about alcohol or sex, but never coupled with the counterpart of the responsibilities that arrive with our coming of age. While I believe alcohol and sex are to be enjoyed in the proper context, you rarely hear positive stories about young people — who’ve just turned 21 — that involve sex and alcohol. Why? Because rights without responsibility are rarely redemptive. In fact, much of the time, rights minus responsibilities simply create selfish brats. Privileges without price tags don’t really help us grow up.

While I love the 21-year-olds I know… I dislike our emphasis on turning 21.

What If…

What if we pondered this issue, and came up with an incredible responsibility that became part of the 21st birthday in America? It would have to be a responsibility that challenged the guy or girl at the heart level; it must engage their passions. It must harness their creativity and gifts. It must be something they’ve wanted for a while, but only becomes theirs as they come of age. I know some parents who:

• Planned international trips for their kids when they turned a certain age. These were service trips, where they helped people in developing nations.

• Talked about projects in the community to help neighbors, but they reserved them for their kids to engage in when they came of age.

• Purchased power tools for their sons, but only allowed them to use them on a project they wanted to build when they came of age.

You’ll have to figure out what works with your young people, but if we want our kids to become healthy adults — responsibilities and rights must always go together.



  1. charlene.fonseca on August 8, 2013 at 7:29 am

    When my daughter turned 21, my brother bought a trophy and typed some simple instructions to his oldest niece that said to write her most profound moments in life so far, along with wisdom she had gained. She was to keep this trophy in her room, tuck away her thoughts, and when the next niece/nephew turned 21, give him/her the trophy and instructions (and her input). She is now almost 30. The trophy that my brother started has traveled from her to my son to his cousin, to her sister. I think it has one more boy to go.

    • Tim Elmore on August 8, 2013 at 7:55 am

      What a fun idea. That’s a great way to share experiences and guide the new 21 year old as he/she navigates the rights and responsibilities at that age. Thanks for sharing Charlene!

  2. Len on August 8, 2013 at 7:34 am

    I remember being anxious to turn 14 so I could get a real job (not just yard work for grandma). I was so excited to work on a construction site even though it was just moving dirt around. I looked up to my dad who could do anything and now I could show him that those skills he taught me would be put to good use. Even today I try to teach my kids to go above and beyond. Don’t just do what you’re told when you’re told, but go the extra step. Regrettably, we are still working on our 4, 6 & 8 year olds to do what their told sometime in this century 😉

    • Tim Elmore on August 8, 2013 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for sharing Len. I believe your 4,6, & 8 year olds will rise to your tremendous work ethic with time:) I appreciate your efforts to instill in your kids the value of going above and beyond!

  3. Kevin on August 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Just reflecting and perhaps restating what you’ve said so well………rights of passage for children require that parents up their game too. As you have said, rites of passage often equal “rights” (i.e. legal use of alcohol). It also often means parents abdicate their responsibilities too ….”ah now that they’re 21 (or 16 and can drive) there is nothing left for me to do.” Its seems to me that we as parents/leaders should avoid on one side, abdicate our responsibilties altogether or hover as helicopter parents on the other.

    Your ideas seem spot on with the caveat you’ve stated that one size does not fit all. Thanks for encouraging us to embrace our continued responsibilities as parents that lead to more healthy transitions of our children into adulthood.

    • Tim Elmore on August 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      I appreciate your feedback. It is definitely a tough balance to find yet I have seen it done very well at times! Thank you for your comment!

  4. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on August 10, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Turning 21 used to be the age of accountability. That was when most were on their own and providing for themselves. Not so now!
    Each of my four children have tried that phrase on me when they became 21.
    At first I would get angry. I told them the only thing they could do was drink legally. Independence would only come to them when they reached the age of accountability which was when I got to stop paying their expenses.
    For our children, the age of accountability seems to be around 25. I hope!

  5. Adam Soldati on August 13, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Mr. Elmore –

    My wife and I are in the process of developing rite of passages for our children and when I read your blog it made me want to inquire if you have a list of things that you did with your children that you would be willing to share?

    Appreciate your blogs. Thanks!

    Adam Soldati
    Diving Coach – Purdue University
    2012 Olympic Coach

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Turning 21 in America