My Vision: New Rites of Passage Appropriate to the Modern World

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1st Corinthians 13:11.

In the modern world, boys don’t understand what it means to be a man. They want to put away childish things, but what really happens is that they become obsessed with the childish things of teen culture. They have no clue what it takes to be a man. And even into their 20s, and sometimes their 30s, many still don’t know how to act like men, still haven’t put away childish things.

In ancient times, communities had rites of passage that took boys away from their mothers, rigorously tested them, taught them what it means to be men, and ceremoniously welcomed them into the adult community. They were never considered boys again. They no longer associated with the kids in the community. They worked alongside the men. They put away childish things.

teen girlThey had similar ritual ceremonies for the passage of young girls into womanhood.

In modern times, only remnants of such rituals remain. The formalized rituals that remain have little or no impact on the young person. After their bar-mitzvahs, bat-mitzvahs, driver licenses, Demolay rituals, debutante balls, quinceanera parties, and high school graduations, they are still kids who are thought of and treated like kids. They are still enthusiastically involved in their favorite childish things.

In my youth, I got lucky. I got involved in life experiences that made me into a man, and many of these involved rites of passage, even if that wasn’t their true intention. Very few young people are lucky enough to have such experiences.

This is one of the reasons why adolescence is such a confusing time. There are no community rites, teachings or passages that profoundly guide young people into adulthood. Kids are adrift to figure it out for themselves. And with a child’s perspective, they almost always get it wrong. They think it has to do with clothes, social media, make-up, pop music, tattoos, alcohol, drugs, risk-taking or sex. None of these things have anything to do with becoming the men and women we want them to become. None of these things help them find their identity or build the kind of character it will take to survive and thrive in the adult world.

Something of utmost importance to modern life has been lost, and we’re paying a high price for it. A million suicide attempts by teens every year. Over half a million teen pregnancies every year. Teens abusing alcohol and drugs and teens overdosing on exposure interactive electronic screen devices – both of which wire their brains for emotional reactivity rather than intellectual skills. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What can a parent do to help transform their child into a happy, successful, responsible adult? Unfortunately, there’s no single best answer to this question. As far as rites of passage go, some parents have tried things. There’s the mother in England who constructed an initiation rite of passage for her 13-year-old boy. There’s the dad who organized other dads to give their sons their own 21st century equivalent of a tribal initiation into adulthood. I’ve started a Pinterest board on this topic to act as a portal for resources on this topic. Still, realistically, the answer we’re all looking for isn’t out there.

This is one of the reasons I write for this blog. I think about this question all the time.

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3 Responses to My Vision: New Rites of Passage Appropriate to the Modern World

  1. Emily Engel says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if the “rite of passage” for teens in our society was having them do some kind of extended service? It could be regular volunteer service in their local community, or a longer mission trip in a foreign country. Either way, I think showing teens that being an adult means putting others before themselves would be so helpful!

  2. Par Donahue says:

    Great blog, great advice, and huge need. Thanks for what you do! I would also add that too many parents wouldn’t know a man if they saw one. Mitt Romney was a man, so was G.H.W. Bush. An additional thought, teens need to WANT to become men, and parents need to want them, and let them, be men. John Locke said, “The sooner you start treating your son like a man, the sooner he will become one.” Moms, stop babying your sons; dads, stop making excuses for them. I will follow you, and share your work! Thanks again.

  3. Andrew says:

    A rite of passage via the school system when young people are 13-15 ensures that we reach all young people…not just those with parents who consider a rite of passage is important.
    As far as I can see…it is the only way to reach vast numbers and create a societal change and shift into responsibility and respect.

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