Growing a Man

Creating mindful passage ceremonies for the boys in your life

You should know going in that I had rather delusional visions of grandeur about this whole fathering business. I knew right away when my eldest son, Benjamin, was born that I was going to be a Father with a capital F. Sure, anyone siring a child is a father in name, but I planned to father with purpose! I wanted to impart to my sons all that it means to be male. Despite my good intentions, however, I quickly discovered that this wasn't as easy as it sounded. Not only did I have a lot to learn about manhood, I had no idea how to teach it to my sons.

Since Benjamin's birth, however, I have spent countless hours reading, researching, and meditating in order to try to get my head around the concept of manhood and how best to share it with Benjamin and his little brother, Jeremiah. I have come to the conclusion that growing a boy into a man is about becoming the man you want to be. It's about being around enough for your son to see you be that man. And I have learned that a man does not teach; a man demonstrates, often through ritual or ceremony. All over the world, culturally specific rites of passage are an integral part of a boy's growth into manhood. Unfortunately, American boys today lack the nearly universal experience of participating in meaningful passage ceremonies with the significant men in their lives. Noting this glaring gap in my own sons' lives, I decided to create passage ceremonies that I could offer Benjamin and Jeremiah as I mentor them into maturity. My goal in creating the ceremonies has been to demonstrate mindfully and in community with other men what it is be a man; to be present as my sons discover their own paths to manhood and to celebrate their progress as well as honor their struggles; and to offer a defined path they may take to get there.

The foundation for the ceremonies exists in a metaphorical story I made up about a boy, Rex, and his journey into Manhood. The essential path begins at the center of an imaginary village at the hearth of a fire. With the passing of years and the completion of each ceremony, Rex moves farther away from the hearth of his home until finally, at Manhood, Rex stands at the top of a mountain for his final ceremony.

I have named the ceremonies/stages after the transition points in the story: the Hillside (age 4), the Prairie (age 8), the Forest (age 12), the Valley (age 16), and the Mountain (age 20). Only three of the transitions are covered here. The story is broken into a series of fables, each fable defining a transition to the next ritual of passage toward maturity.

I know many of us think of family and community ritual as an ancient thing. But ceremony is not ancient. Creating sacred space for yourself, your son, and a community of men doesn't require that you learn some other, forgotten language or pick up a culture that is not your own. Simply sharing a story with your son about going to work and accepting responsibility for a mistake will become sacred when you tell it. For many reasons, American men have given up our responsibility to mentor and apprentice our sons and to share our lives with them in whole and meaningful ways. By creating your own passage ceremonies, you can reclaim your role as your son's father.


The Hillside

The first two to four years of a boy's life is spent at the hearth of Mother, nursing, discovering his body, and meeting his family. There is very little distinction between boys and girls during this stage. The beginning of a boy's differentiation from his mother and, indeed, from woman, begins at the Hillside. Before designing my son's first passage ceremony, I first had to choose my own community of men and ask myself, "Who will stand with me and celebrate my son's passages?" This is a momentous decision for a father, and one that is deserving of a great deal of thoughtful deliberation.

Each of the Manhood ceremonies begins with the building of a fire. The fire offers not only a place to tell stories but a way to honor our heritage at the hearth as we move into manhood.

In my fable, the Hillside is at the edge of the village and is simultaneously a part of and not a part of the larger community. This first ceremony, taking place at around age four, is the simplest and yet, perhaps, the most significant. This is a time when the boy is becoming aware for the first time that he can exist apart from his mother and is beginning to connect with his father as a potential ally. In my story, Rex stands at the top of the hillside and can look around to see his mother tending the fire, as well as the prairie and landscape beyond his village. He sees that the world is much bigger than his village and begins his preparations to explore it.

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