In anthropology, a rite of passage is a ritual, event, or experience that marks a major milestone or change in a person’s life . It indicates the end of one chapter in life and the beginning of the next. Past and present, cultures around the world have held rite of passage ceremonies to support their boys during the transition from boyhood to manhood. These gatherings created a situation where elders could bestow the “knowledge of life” and “family values” on the younger generation. This helped keep their society well cared for. Typically, these events would occur between the ages of twelve to fifteen—old enough for a boy to understand that his life was changing, but before he had fully physically developed into a man.
Traditionally, a rite of passage consists of three parts: withdrawing or separating from the family, the journey itself, and the return to the community. The withdrawal stage is necessary to break the boy out of his regular routine and to separate him from his normal sources of support. This is the first step that he must make if he is ever going to gain independence and leave his childhood behind.
The journey itself is an opportunity for the boy to “get away” and gives him time to process the change that is occurring in his life. Oftentimes, this involves a literal journey, where the boy travels from one place to another. The physical journey reflects the emotional and spiritual journey that he is making and helps to make it clear to him the passage from one stage of life to the next.
The return phase of a rite of passage is the reincorporation back into society, no longer a child but now a man. It is a joyful and triumphant event. The three parts of a rite of passage are equally important—no one is any more important than the other. They are like the three legs to the stool that keeps it standing.
Examples of rites of passage include the Jewish Bar-Mitzvah, the Walkabout in Australian Aboriginal society, the Seijin Shiki ceremony in modern Japan, and the bullet ant ritual for boys from the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. Each rite of passage is uniquely designed to help young men make the leap from boyhood to manhood in a culturally meaningful way. Some coming-of-age ceremonies are intellectual in nature, like reading the Torah and giving a reflection, and others are physical challenges, like living alone in the wilderness for months at a time.
Although the different forms of rites of passage from around the world are unique in their own ways, the benefits are universal: they foster a sense of belonging to the community and clearly indicate to the young person their new status as an adult. For boys, they help solidify their masculine identity as part of the community, not as a lone wolf who needs to come up with his own ways to “prove himself” as a man.
To the detriment of our sons, society today does not offer a similar coming-of-age event. The closest thing that we have to a rite of passage in American culture is a “sweet sixteen,” which typically involves a DJ and a pool party. Notably, there is no withdrawal or journey in a sweet sixteen celebration, both of which are crucial elements to a truly meaningful rite of passage. The sweet sixteen does not attempt at the all-important undertaking of passing down family values or instilling a sense of responsibility in the boy. It is all party and no actual challenge. Ultimately, this is a huge disservice to him, because it does not fully prepare him for the real world. A sweet sixteen may be a fun party, but it is not a rite of passage.
A rite of passage is one of those ancient traditions that past societies saw value in but modern society is too blind to appreciate. To quote an unknown author, “It’s absolutely ludicrous that our society does not actively support adolescents over the threshold into adulthood. We just expect them to ‘grow up’ magically, on their own, without appropriate adult role models or powerful and meaningful rites of passage.”
By looking at how other cultures have addressed the transition from boyhood to manhood, we learn that we can either sit by and watch the next generation stumble upon their own mistakes, or we can do something about it.
Your son needs to hear that he is no longer a boy but rather that he is now a man.
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