Puberty Rites

Just as body and behavior must be compatible, the genetic and cultural programs must cooperate for the successful survival and reproduction of the organism. This notion is illustrated by puberty rites, which may be regarded as a cultural growth spurt analogous to the changes of puberty; both provide intensive preparation for adulthood (G. E. Weisfeld, 1997). Functional analysis of the various features of puberty rites may reveal some general characteristics of adolescence. Although only 56% of preliterate cultures have a formal initiation ceremony (Schlegel & Barry, 1980), virtually all have an intensive training period before induction into adulthood (Schlegel & Barry, 1991), and so puberty rites, broadly construed, are a constant of adolescence.

Puberty rites vary widely across cultures because different environments demand the cultivation of different skills and behaviors, but some general patterns emerge (J. W. M. Whiting, Kluckholn & Anthony, 1958). Initiates typically are tutored in sex-specific adult economic, familial, and cultural skills. The same-sex parent is usually the main teacher of subsistence skills, but the initiate is tutored by some other same-sex adult in social and ceremonial matters (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). Puberty rites usually entail some challenging ordeal that boys, in particular, must endure (Schlegel & Barry, 1980). Ordeals may be used to subdue recalcitrant youths, who are more likely to be boys, as in the Hopi (G. E. Weisfeld, 1999). This is analogous to the more rigorous competition that males of most species, as opposed to females, undergo to enter the breeding pool. Boys will also have to hone their economic skills in order to compete for a wife. Consistent with this interpretation, the theme of boys' initiation rites is usually graduation, rebirth, or accomplishment (Hotvedt, 1990; Schlegel & Barry, 1980). The theme for girls' rites is typically fertility or beauty (Schlegel & Barry, 1980; Sommer, 1978). Thus, for both sexes, traits important for reproductive success are cultivated and extolled. Upon completing their initiation rites, adolescents are usually regarded as adults and are eligible to marry. To signify their emerging adulthood, initiates usually have their bodies specially marked, much as primates take on adult bodily features so they can be identified as sexually mature.

The timing of puberty rites has been something of a conundrum. Some sources state that the rites occur at the onset of puberty, others at the conclusion of puberty. The ambiguity may be resolved by recognizing a sex difference in these events. Girls are usually initiated at menar-che, after most of the events of puberty have been completed (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). By contrast, boys are typically initiated before most of the changes of puberty (Schlegel & Barry, 1980). Interestingly, for both sexes initiation occurs shortly before the onset of fertility, thus underscoring the significance of this institution as a preparation for family responsibilities (G. E. Weisfeld, 1997).

Several other features of puberty rites seem to be functionally analogous to various pubertal changes. The sexes are almost always segregated during the training period, just as nonhuman primates—and children— spontaneously sex segregate before puberty and are drawn to older same-sex models (Goodall, 1986; Mackey, 1983). These affinities doubtless aid the learning of sex roles, as do the bodily and behavioral changes of puber-tal sex differentiation. Sex differentiation of personality traits reaches its end point around age 11 around the world (Beere, 1990; Best, 2001).

Initiates are separated from their parents as well, just as mature simians distance themselves from their mothers and increasingly associate with peers. Likewise, emotional distance from parents increases in U.S. adolescents (Silverberg & Steinberg, 1987). Parent-adolescent distancing in humans may be orchestrated by (among other factors) pubertal hormones, as suggested by research on family conflict. As adolescents enter puberty, discussions between them and their parents (especially the mother) tend to increase in acrimony (Holmbeck & Hill, 1991; Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Sagrestano, McCormick, Paikoff, & Holmbeck, 1999; Steinberg, 1987). Fewer explanations are offered, and more harsh words are exchanged. This contentiousness peaks at the height of the adolescent growth spurt, controlling for chronological age (Molina & Chassin, 1996; Sagrestano et al., 1999). This suggests that contentiousness is driven either directly by hormonal effects on behavior or indirectly by the bodily changes of puberty triggering perceptual changes in the parents.

Parent-child conflict tends to be harshest between mother and son, in U.S. research (Montemayor & Hanson, 1985; Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Silverberg, 1989). After the velocity of growth peaks, conflict usually subsides. However, at this point adolescent sons tend to win most arguments with their mothers, whereas previously the mothers prevailed (Jacob, 1974; Steinberg, 1987). In effect, mother and adolescent son reverse their dominance relationship, just as happens in chimpanzees (Goodall, 1986). Dominance reversal between sons and mothers probably occurs universally, in that in all cultures males are ascribed higher social status than females, and youth defers to age (Stephens, 1963; van den Berghe, 1980). On the other hand, human mothers remain dominant over daughters, and fathers over sons and daughters. Parent-adolescent distancing and renegotiation of dominance relations may be necessary for adolescents to gain appropriate independence from their parents.

Given the ubiquity of this adaptive problem, a genetic basis for this separation probably evolved. It is likely that some dependable hormonally based mechanism provided a proximate cause for this aversion, although cultural and individual factors certainly modify it. Fathers and sons often come into conflict, especially over transferring wealth that the son needs for bride wealth, as among African pastoralists (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). Hopi mothers and adolescent daughters sometimes argue over the daughter's socializing immodestly with boys or neglecting her chores. However, in terms of dominance relations, Schlegel and Barry (1991) stated that boys and girls are more subordinate to fathers than to mothers, and that mothers have greater authority over daughters than over sons. This implies a dominance order of father > mother > son > daughter, meaning again that the least clear-cut parent-adolescent relationship is mother-son.

Another possible adaptive, or ultimate, causal explanation for conflict between parents and adolescents is a natural selfishness in the latter. Being about to confront the challenges of independence from parents and of mate competition and parenthood, young people may look after their own interests. By contrast, grandparents tend to be quite devoted to their grandchildren and other kin. They are past their reproductive years and so can only increase the representation of their genes in subsequent generations by practicing kin altruism: aiding close relatives with whom they share genes by common descent. Kin altruism provides an indirect way of passing one's genes on to future generations, and therefore occurs in many species and all human societies. For example, post-menopausal Hadza women worked even harder than childbearing women, allowing their daughters to have more and healthier children (Hawkes, O'Connell, & Blurton Jones, 1989). Similarly, in other species in which life continues after reproduction, kin altruism of various sorts has been observed. Adolescents, being at the other end of the reproductive span, would be expected to act rather selfishly toward kin and others. In addition, their lack of experience in adult society may cause them to behave badly on occasion (G. E. Weisfeld, 1999).

Other widespread features of puberty rites also make functional sense. Newly initiated young men often serve as warriors (Young, 1965), just as young male monkeys act as sentinels and shock troops (Chance & Jolly, 1970; Schlegel, 1995). These youths have undergone the rigors of puberty rites as a group, developing solidarity that will serve them well in warfare. They are unmarried and have no dependents, and so are relatively expendable. Girls, by contrast, are invariably initiated singly as soon as they reach menarche (Young, 1965). This ensures that a girl will be initiated, and hence eligible for marriage, just as she approaches the onset of fertility. She will be most in demand as a bride when her reproductive value—her expected future number of offspring—peaks (Daly & Wilson, 1983). By marrying such a woman, who cannot be carrying another man's child but has all of her child-bearing years ahead of her, a man maximizes his own reproductive chances. In most societies, girls marry within 2 years of menarche (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). In modern society, however, women often postpone marriage or reproduction until they have completed their education. This variation on the species-typical pattern can probably be explained by factors that did not operate when the human genome was evolving, such as the availability of effective contraception and the time needed to learn the complex skills of our economy.

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