Rites of passage have been an integral part of many (if not most) cultures for thousands and thousands of years.
With manhood being something that is both recognized and bestowed by other men in the tribe, it makes sense that it needs to be earned and, when it is earned, it needs to be apparent that this has happened.
What happens in these rites varies as much as each culture’s specific definitions of masculinity but there are consistent themes and elements that can be universal.
Sadly, in our “civilized” society we don’t do much by way of initiation. And, as a result, most modern males have no idea when they’ve officially entered the realm of manhood.
Is it when they lost their virginity? Graduated college? Bought a house? Had a kid? How many males do you know who’ve done most or all of these things and still consider themselves a guy instead of a man?
Being a father of a son, this has weighed on me for years. How can I help him enter into the world of men feeling confident that he is one – that he’s earned the title of Man?
It’s been on my mind since the day we found out we were having a boy and I knew that some level of initiation was necessary for both of us to make that distinction in his life.
For years I’ve been studying what I can on this – reading books like Iron John and The Power of Myth. I’ve tried to dig into ancient and traditional cultures to see what they did and why?
A pivotal point for me was when my friend Ryan Michler set up a rite of passage for his sons. They were still boys and not being initiated into full manhood, but these rites were to help them see they had made a definitive step along the path.
So I planned and studied some more until I created something for my own son to do once he turned eight.
The day after he was born I went and bought a pocket knife, planning on giving it to him when he was old enough to earn it. I used that knife daily for years and let him know it would one day be his.
For the last two years, I’ve let him borrow and practice with it as we’ve gone camping, off roading, and hiking. He always had to return it because it wasn’t his yet, but it whet his appetite for being able to claim it as his own.
Well a couple of weeks ago he turned eight and it was time for him to earn his knife. We set up a challenge for him that he knew he’d need to pass to be able to do so.
The first thing I did was invite all the important men in his life to either participate or observe. These were grandpas and uncles, my friends and the fathers of his friends in the neighborhood. Most declined but we had representation from each group at his initiation. A few even chose to participate along with him.
This aspect was crucial because there is no point in a rite of passage if it’s done on its own. These events are a doorway into the next phase of life. If that door doesn’t open to a new way of being treated and considered, it’s useless. So having those men there to all acknowledge that he’d passed through the trial was necessary.
I built the idea of what I wanted to do around Jack Donovan’s four tactical virtues – Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor – with a challenge that correlated to each of the virtues.
First up was strength. The goal was 100 burpees. Is this the best measure of strength? Of course not, but it’s one that easily translates and sinks into an eight-year-old brain. To make it both more challenging and more fun, we did five sets of 20 and each of the sets had different variations. From having to tape our mouths shut and only breathe through our noses, to double pushups on the bottom, to running up and down the driveway between each rep, we made it a challenge for him.
100 was the right number. It was both doable but also a stretch for him to accomplish and he was visibly tired when we were finished.
The best part was, on the last set of ten, I pushed him to go as hard and as fast as he could – and he did. Rather than coasting through to the finish he sprinted and was able to finish knowing he’d put in his best effort.
From there we had a Mastery challenge. We live near a local lake and his next assignment was a 90-second cold plunge in the water. He’d done freezing plunges before but never for that long and always in the ice bath we have in the backyard. Doing it in the murky lake added an element of fear and the unknown that needed to be controlled.
Before we all jumped him I helped him understand that Mastery is over oneself. When we hit the cold water he’d be tempted to freak out, get out, and hyperventilate. He not only needed to stay in for the full 90 seconds, but he needed to control his breathing and his tension while we were in there.
After a bit of fear during the countdown, he jumped in with all of us and was able to quickly control both his breath and his shivering. With ten seconds left I challenged him to go for two minutes and he readily accepted.
After we dried off we headed back to the house for his third challenge – one centered on Courage.
Like most boys his age, my son has a hard time eating foods he’s unfamiliar with. It’s one of the few things that can elicit some real resistance out of him. He’s had a pet bearded dragon for a little over a year and, part of taking care of the lizard is feeding it crickets each day.
I knew right away that eating one of these fat, gross, bugs would be the Courage challenge, and I was right. When I told him that would be expected, it was the task he was most resistant to. He spent a couple weeks varying between lamenting it, questioning it, and being mad at me about it. But, with enough time to sort through it, he came around.
There was zero hesitation when it came time to chomp down the bug and it helped him to see that Courage often takes mental prep ahead of time and then a willingness to simply commit and act without hesitation when the moment arises.
The best part of eating the cricket was that, while it was the one he feared the most, it was the easiest and smallest challenge once he’d made up his mind to do it – which led to an even better discussion about both Courage and Mastery.
At this point he’d completed the things I’d prepared him for ahead of time. There was one final challenge related to Honor that I told him he didn’t need to participate in to earn his knife, but was the most important one and the one that meant a full completion of the challenge.
I’m not planning on outlining the details of that challenge but I will say that he chose to do what was asked, I was incredibly proud of him, and it was a profound learning experience for all of us.
It’s been a few weeks and he carries his knife with him everywhere. He’s anxious for packages to arrive at the door so he has an excuse to use it and be useful. We’ve been able to reference those challenges and how they related to the Tactical Virtues when he’s struggling with a particular attitude or behavior.
All in all, it was a successful event – one that helped him turn and actual corner and enter into a new phase of life. It’s one that we can and do reference and is something that makes him feel proud and accomplished.
The plan from here is to do a next level of initiation when he’s around twelve and then a final passage into manhood when he’s older. I don’t know what either of those look like yet, and that’s part of the fun of this experience. I do know the two of us are already looking forward to those rites and what they’ll mean for him as a developing man.
If you’re ready to do some sort of rite of passage for your own son, I highly encourage it. I also recommend you don’t get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing but more in what they represent. I could have chosen any number of different things to teach my son about Courage, Strength, Mastery, Honor, or any other masculine virtue I wanted to focus on. Focus on what you want to teach and how his life will be different after. Everything else is just details.