Throughout much of history, spanning tribes, cultures and continents, the rite of passage from boyhood into manhood has signified the delineation for men. It marks a separation, a coming of age, a fulfillment of an important role within the greater community. Today, as we see persistent adolescence lasting until men are middle-aged, less and less men marrying and getting out of their parent's homes at the age of twenty-something, and increased gun violence perpetrated by male youth throughout the Western world, the question begs a revisit. Do boys need a rites of passage to help bring them into manhood?
Growing up in a secular Western nation, just reading about tribal rites of passage makes me ill. Many of them are brutal, bloody, and overly superstitious. Others incorporate the gaining of useful skills, such as hunting wild animals or being able to fend for yourself in the wilderness, both incredibly practical skills when you grow up in hunting and gathering tribal societies. There are also more general celebrations of man and womanhood at particular ages, such as the bar-mitzvah and bat-mitzvah celebrated in Jewish families, or the Quinceañera celebrated at 15 in Hispanic culture. Despite the variations in the cultural rites, there are a lot of similarities between them that can be powerful for our children today.
There is great importance in being promoted, honored, and in having to prove yourself in front of your community. Not only are young men sent out and tested in many rites of passage, but there is an intentional separation between mother and son, delineating the time when he gathered most of his strength from her, and bringing him into a time where he garners lessons, wisdom and strength from the men in his community. Some are sent out on fasts in tents. Others have to find an animal and kill it. When the boy returns and has completed the task successfully, he is celebrated. He is honored. He knows that he has found a place of importance in his community and his victory makes him confident at the start of his journey as a man.
Contrast that attitude to today’s attitude with boys. We overprotect, over nurture, and helicopter parent the manliness out of our sons. Am I advocating for some kind of neglectful parenting, like sending young, unprepared boys out into the woods alone? No. What I am advocating for is a belief in our boys to be good men, to overcome the difficulties of life, and to fulfill their roles in our community. To push them to limits they never thought were possible.
When boys lack the approval and honor of their parents, their teachers, and their elders in general, they will find a place to test and prove themselves. They will seek out ways to show themselves worthy of respect. Unfortunately, this is usually done in the context of peers, those who are not wise and have no experience in the world themselves. This results in a perverted and twisted expression of manhood, respect and honor, commonly seen among gangs and terrorist groups where the more deviant the behavior, the manlier the boy.
Our culture must also acknowledge that there is a need for boys and men in our society. In hunter-gatherer societies, where food is obtained through strength and hunting, the roles were more clearly laid out. Today we utilize different skills, and the lines of masculinity have been blurred to the point that there are scholars and writers who actually advocate for positions stating that fathers serve no purpose in the family.
While I can appreciate that single moms can raise wonderful children, I can not look at my son with his unique abilities, his boldness, his desire for strength, and believe that there is no place for distinctive masculinity within our culture. In fact, when I look at him I know that his belief that he matters in the world will be knit to the way he carries out his strength in this world, for better or for worse. If giving him that place in a wholesome, spiritual and wise way can help him impact his friends, his elders, his sister, his wife, and his children for the better, then why wouldn’t I give him that? Let’s end the helicopter parenting and really, truly believe in the ability of our children, of our sons, to make waves in the world. Let them explore, learn, run wild, fail, conquer their fears, and learn about their vital place in this world. Let’s initiate them with honor and see what the next generation looks like.
Thanks for reading!