My husband and I are constantly looking at resources for raising children. Of particular concern to us is enjoying our (soon-to-be) teenagers as we help them develop into independent, happy, responsible adults. No celebrity-like teenagers for us, thank you very much.
In our searching, we have come across the intriguing idea of coming-of-age rituals. Historically known as a tradition associated with Native American and African tribes, these rituals often contain physical and spiritual elements. When a child successfully completes these trials, he or she is officially considered an adult, with attendant responsibilities and privileges.
These rituals have been all but lost in our western culture today, though they were once regarded as a crucial stepping stone in many civilizations. Richard Rohr, a noted author and theologian, has noted that only in our western culture has it been deemed unnecessary to initiate our children.
In our quest to raise children who become contributors to the world, and to help them avoid typical teen angst and destructive behaviors, my husband and I decided this was something we wanted to implement in our family. We have enjoyed two books, in particular, which recommend more modern rituals: Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys and Raising Real Men. The Art of Manliness blog also has many excellent articles explaining how important these rituals are. As Stephen James and David Thomas of Wild Things have put it:
“In our postmodern culture of rapid change and global transformation, boys are wrestling with questions of identity, morality and belonging. . . If we don’t create rites of passage for our boys, they will find their own. If we don’t mark their passage into the fellowship of men, they will create experiences that make them feel like the men they long to become.
A rite of passage for a boy can be anything from smoking pot to sleeping with a girl to driving drunk or breaking the law in some way. The rise of inner city gangs in our culture is a direct result of the absence of fathers and the resulting failure to properly initiate boys into men. Gangs have all the central components of initiation . . .
For many boys, life will eventually initiate them, but it is often too late or too imperceptible to have any real meaning. When boys are initiated by happenstance, they rarely comprehend the sacred significance of the moment, and thus it has little impact. Without initiation, boys become disillusioned, dissatisfied, and disenchanted. They have nothing greater than themselves to be a part of–they lack a moral and spiritual identity–and they have no greater story to guide them (276-277).”
Though these books speak specifically of boys, my husband and I agreed that our daughter Katie, who is our oldest, needed this as well. In this world of increasing sexualization of women, young girls are often given the message that their worth lies only in their ability to be sexy. We want our daughter to know that she is a strong, capable person, who is smart, loving, and faith-filled. We wanted her to have a guide throughout these potentially turbulent years, taking her to calm but deep waters.
We decided to have a “Coming of Age” celebration for all our children—an event that does not celebrate arriving at adulthood, but the coming changes and transformation—the beginning of growing into adulthood. My husband and I chose age 12 to do this celebration. Our church has a transition for children at this point, and we also wanted to do the celebration before our daughter’s body started changing a lot.
We began by asking the women in our family to write a letter to Katie. What they wrote was up to them, but we listed some suggestions:
- What does it mean to be a woman?
- What do you like about being a woman?
- What do you wish you would have known during your teenage years—about boys, about your body, etc.?
- What advice do you have?
The result was tremendous. Most of Katie’s grandmothers and aunts were hesitant and unsure about what to write. This was a very vulnerable and sensitive thing to ask of them, but they are marvelous women with a lot of wisdom and insight. The letters were more than we had hoped for. We also asked her grandfathers to write a letter about what they appreciate and love about women. Lastly, my husband and I also wrote a letter.
In addition, we collected family history stories about strong women in our family, stories about female historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Mother Teresa, and stories about women in our community who had gone through difficult times.
I created a cute binder with a meaningful quote on the front. Inside, were three sections: letters to Katie, stories, and inspirational quotes.
On the day of the celebration, we invited the female family members who lived nearby to come to a special lunch, which I let Katie plan. After we ate, I read the letters of those who could not be there. Then I passed around the binder and those who were there then read or talked about their own letter. We laughed, and we cried. Perhaps what most surprised me about this event was how much better I came to know and appreciate my sisters and mother—even though we are quite close. I came to see them in a new way as I learned of struggles I never realized they had—and how they overcame them.
At the end of our luncheon, I presented Katie with a special necklace. It was a medallion with a scripture engraved on it that we hoped would guide her in the future. I did the engraving myself with the tools my husband got from boss laser. It also had a small tree charm that signified that she will grow into a powerful force, but also represented her personal family tree, with a reminder of the strong women behind her.
Afterwards, when I asked my daughter what she thought about the whole thing, she remarked, “The biggest message I got was to not back down from my beliefs when peer pressure comes. I also learned that it is ok to just be me. I don’t have to be like everyone else. It was a really good experience.”
We loved our celebration so much that extended family members are planning on carrying on the tradition with their own children. As my son’s twelfth birthday comes later this year, I am now in the process of planning his celebration. Here are some suggestions from Hal and Melanie Young of Raising Real Men:
- Make formal invitations similar to wedding or graduation announcements. These do not have to be expensive (you can make them yourself) but they do impress upon your son and all invited how important this celebration is.
- Do a “manly” activity and invite friends and family. Make it a party! Feed people and have fun!
- After the activity is finished, now is the time for a presentation. Include in the invitation a request that the men in the family and male friends you respect and admire give your son an object with a lesson attached to it about what it means to be a “real man.” An example is a hammer– with the reminder that his life (like a hammer) can be used to create and beautify or to destroy. Boys are often very tactile, which is one reason why objects work so well as teaching tools.
- After the celebration, it is important to give the young man or young woman extra responsibilities as well as privileges, and let them savor growing into adulthood. They will rise to the occasion every time and often surprise you!
These young people will one day be full-fledged adults in the real world where self-respect, self-discipline, responsibility, wise decisions and hard work are required. Often the consequences are very harsh if these lessons have not been learned in the safety of home.
As we encourage our growing children to become adults in an age-appropriate manner, we raise a generation of empowered, independent, capable, and confident young adults—who do not look to misguided peers or media for cues on how to behave, but to the trusted men and women who have carefully mentored them.
QUESTION: When did you consider yourself an adult? What helped you through the transition?
CHALLENGE: Make a list of ways you can help your children transition between childhood and adulthood. What family rituals could help in this process?
Edited by Aubrey Degn and Sarah Monson. Image from Jennifer Brimwall with graphics by Julie Finlayson.