You can help boys become men through rites of passage. Every tribal society uses rites of passage to help boys enter manhood. In the transition to agrarian and then industrial society many of these rituals have been lost. Boys who lack rites of passage are vulnerable to dangerous behaviour in misguided attempts to prove their manhood. It’s imperative that we use rites of passage to help guide boys in the transition from boyhood to manhood so they don’t fall prey to these dangers or alternatively question their own identity and purpose.
What is a Rite of Passage?
Arnold Van Gennep studied rites of passage in cultures all over the world. He defined rites of passage as “any life cycle ritual that marks a person or groups transition from one social state to another.” Taking this broad definition we can see rites of passage in our daily lives such as graduations, funerals, and weddings. Most people will go through many rites of passage over the course of their lifetime. For men the most important transition by far is from being a boy to a man
Why do Boys Need Rites of Passage?
The transition from boyhood to manhood is more socially proscribed than the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Manhood is something that is earned and can be taken away, whereas womanhood is more based on biology. We might question the manhood of an adult male, but we rarely question the womanhood of an adult female. When someone says “be a man” they mean “act like a man”.
Masculinity has always been something that is performed, and therefore is inherently vulnerable. Since manhood must be earned boys are primed to do whatever it takes to prove to others that they are a man. They know that being a man is associated with being successful at life and the key to attracting a partner they desire. If they aren’t provided with structured pathways to earn their manhood they will engage in risky and dangerous behaviour to prove themselves.
how do you create a rite of passage?
In his book The Purpose of Boys Michael Gurian describes a year long rites of passage program that he has developed. Using the principles of this approach I will describe what I think are the fundamental components of rites of passage. You can use these as a template to create rites of passage for a young man in your life. Here are the core elements of rites of passage for boys.
- The Challenge – Boys need to do something difficult to demonstrate their competence
- The Mentors – Mature males who help guide boys in their task, but don’t do it for them
- The Badge – A token that is a physical representation of their hard work
- The Speech – The boy talks about his experience and who he wants to be
- The Blessing – The boys mentors acknowledge his struggles and successes, affirms who he is and who he can become
Informal Rites of Passage
Using this framework you can see how different activities and experiences in the boy’s life will meet some of his need for rites of passage. For example playing sports have always been a rite of passage like experience for boys.
- The Challenge – Practicing and playing in games
- The Mentors – The coaches
- The Badge – Winning awards, or even physical injuries are often worn with pride
- The Speech – A team captain giving his teammates a pep talk before the game
- The Blessing – Coaches praising players different contributions
Using this lens we can see how even binge drinking has elements of rites of passage.
- The Challenge – Who can create the wildest weekend
- The Mentors – Older/more experienced peers
- The Badge – A hangover, injuries, or “hooking up” with someone
- The Speech – Talking about the events the next day
- The Blessing – Receiving praise from peers for daring exploits
Now that you know this formula you can use it to give your son with the deep affirmation that rites of passage provide. This will make him more mature, more responsible, and less likely to do risky things. The ideal age for boys to engage in rites of passage is 13-15. However they can still be very powerful before and after this window. I’ve even heard of men in their 20’s and 30’s creating rites of passage for themselves and other men. Here’s how you can do it.
Having a conversation with the young man about a challenge he can take on that is difficult. If it’s related to his interests he will be more motivated but it doesn’t have to be. Common rites of passage activities could be a weekend of camping where the boy has significant responsibilities. For technologically inclined boys it could be building a computer, or designing a video game. The only requirements is that the task be challenging for him, time limited, and he does the work himself. He must do something that will push him out of his comfort zone; something he can be proud of. Once you’ve decided on the task, set a date for completion.
Once you’ve selected the task ask the boy whom he would like to help him through this process. This person doesn’t necessarily have to be his dad or even a relative, but it should be a man in his life whom he trusts and will spend time with. This mentor’s role is to be an encouragement to the boy during his task. He should not intervene if the boy can’t do it. Failure must be a potential outcome if the task is to be meaningful. Even if the boys don’t succeed in accomplishing his goal, the effort and work he puts in will serve as the basis for recognition and praise.
The mentor/father should choose a token that can be given to the boy as an outward sign of his success. If this token is a family heirloom or has some meaning to the mentor it will be even more powerful in symbolizing the boy’s achievement. This could also be a gift or a new responsibility that the boy has been wanting. In martial arts trainee’s receive new belts at each stage of their training to signify the work they have done. In boy scouts they receive literal badges that they wear to show the skills they have learned. Similarly the badge could be a piece of clothing or something that he can wear proudly to demonstrate to others his accomplishment.
Once the boy has completed the task, schedule a celebratory meal that will be attended by the boy, his mentor, and anyone else who he would like to be there. Ask the boy to prepare a short speech that he will give after the meal to others. In the speech he will talk about what he learned through this process. He will also share what kind of a man he wants to be now and in the future. In the speech he can also acknowledge any mentors and role models that he is thankful for in supporting him in his endeavours.
After the boy speaks, his mentor and or father will give their own speech. They will acknowledge the challenges and struggles the boy has faced and how he has overcome them. If he failed to complete the challenge they can discuss how he has handled the failure, and what this means about his character. Finally they can end with how they see his character as a man currently and into the future. At the end they can give him the badge or token symbolizing his achievement and growth.
As a 13 year old boy I was starting to get into trouble, smoking weed and hanging out with a bad crowd. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I continued on doing it. My dad was not always present in my life, but one weekend he asked me and my brother to attend a men’s conference with him. The conference did not have all the elements of a rite of passage but the speakers talked about what it meant to be a man, and at the end the fathers had an opportunity to bless their sons. I can’t recall what my dad said, but I do remember the look in his eyes, and the feeling in my heart. After that I stopped hanging out with those friends and started trying to act like the person I wanted to be.
Now I work as a counsellor helping young men struggling with mental health challenges and their families. I’ve developed a 10 week course to help parents learn the unique needs of boys and help boys who are struggling with lack of motivation or other mental health challenges. In this course I go deeper into how to create rites of passage for young men.
What Really Matters
Your rite of passage doesn’t have to be perfect. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what a young man does for his challenge, or what the words you choose to bless him. What really matters is that you were there with him through the process. What matters is that you said something acknowledging who he is and who he can become. When this is done in the presence of adults who care for him he will take it to heart and strive to become the man he knows he can be.