Growing a Man
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 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.
The Hillside ceremony itself can be a daylong affair, during which a boy can spend time together with mother and siblings. There may be related activities during the day, such as asking the boy to help prepare for the ceremony by collecting wood, going to the store to buy marshmallows, etc. While the ceremony may be for the community of men to welcome this boy into the "tribe," the day belongs to the family of which the boy is an integral part. Also, it is important to emphasize that this first step on the journey toward Manhood is not about leaving anyone or anything. It is simply about giving the boy permission to continue his exploration away from the hearth with a formal invitation that says, "We are your community of men. Welcome."
The actual ceremony takes place in the evening, as the men gather and build a fire. You may want to have a cookout. After eating, the father should announce something like this: "We are gathering to welcome you into our group of men. As you grow, we will always help you and be there to watch and celebrate your accomplishments. You are a Young Boy now." Finally, you should invite your son and the other men to tell stories. The men may want to relate a story from when they were four or five years old. It will be especially meaningful if someone of your father's generation can tell a story about you when you were your son's age. This first ceremony is as much for you and your community of men as it is for your son. You may be just developing a real dynamic for how you and they will address this whole business of being a support to each other and your sons.
As your son grows, the ceremonies will take on more significance for him. You will want to put more time into preparing for each of his passages. Depending on your particular interests and how you want to define your own manhood, you can plan for projects to either begin or end at a passage ceremony. I find the twelve-year-old ceremony, the Forest, to be of particular importance. In the continuum of the journey toward Manhood, age twelve marks a transition when your son will become more man than boy, where previously he had been more boy than man.
At age twelve, Rex has ventured beyond the borders of his village. He has begun to participate more fully in village life, having specific chores and responsibilities. He has even been given limited responsibility for younger siblings and other children as they gather wheat and stones from the Prairie. At the ceremony of the Forest, Rex stands at the edge of the forest. He can see his village on the horizon, but he knows that as soon as he enters the forest he will completely--if temporarily--lose sight of his village for the first time.
What his parents know is that they can still reach him and that the risks of venturing into the forest are limited; if Rex cries out, they will hear him. Rex's feelings of risk will come largely from within himself as he experiences shadows and darkness for the first time. Up to this point, any danger to Rex could be seen well before it came to him. At the Forest, he embarks for the first time into a place where danger may surprise him.
In the real world, a twelve-year-old boy is about to hit puberty, a time of momentous significance. While the first ceremony may be the most meaningful for you as a father, I believe the Forest ceremony may have the most import for your son. We all remember with some measure of anxiety the strange, wonderful, humiliating, and somewhat surreal period we call adolescence.
In preparing the ceremony of the Forest, it is important for a father to think carefully and solicit feedback from his community of men regarding what topics will be addressed. Will we tell stories about our first orgasm? About masturbation? What if we suspect our son is gay? You will necessarily have your own ideas about these and other challenging topics your son will encounter in the years ahead.
Given the significance of this particular passage ceremony, a father should think wisely about what will be most meaningful in marking this special occasion for his son. One of the most important things we can do for a boy of this age is to plan and carry out a project together. At a time in his life when a boy is often unsure of himself, we can shore up some of his doubts and feelings of inadequacy by focusing on something he can accomplish. The notion of a goal, of finishing something, carries a lot of weight at this time.
One excellent idea for meeting this need is to build a treehouse over the summer, culminating in his passage ceremony in the fall. Or you could take an overnight canoe trip with your son. The ceremony would take place at the campsite. Another possibility is to plant and tend a garden through the summer, organizing his passage ceremony around the harvest. The men in my wife's family are tomato growers. What does your family grow?
Whatever you decide, for the ceremony itself, you, your son, and your community should build a fire and gather together. As the father, you should take the lead and tell the assembled group the story of what your son did on his way to this passage into adolescence. ("Benjamin planted a garden this spring. He cared for it, and last week, he harvested the fruits of his labor. He has brought this food to us this evening to eat.") You can then make a statement about his journey toward Manhood: "You have accomplished something. You are now a teenager." As before, the stories shared among the men at the ceremony are key. Through them, you, your son, and the men with whom you gather will develop an understanding of your shared manhood and how it manifests itself in each individual.
This final ceremony is fundamentally different from the others. For one thing, the son should have the opportunity in this ritual to build his own fire. Looking to our story, we recognize that as Rex moves farther away from his village, he must build his own fire in order to survive. And so, as young men, we learn create our own hearth around which we will one day gather our new family.
The gathering at the Mountain for the final passage into Manhood is momentous. Both father and son should take a role in planning for this passage ceremony. On the one hand, the father should be responsible for organizing the other men, securing commitments from whomever is to participate, and paying for any arrangements (such as hotel reservations, if you plan to travel). He should also be prepared to run the first part of the ceremony by introducing his son as a man, retelling the journey of his previous ceremonies, and turning over the ceremony to his son to finish. Your son should have prepared a speech, story, or performance for the group. It is his moment to proclaim his manhood and take his rightful place in his community of men. After a young man's proclamation, the group can settle into the now-familiar ceremonial traditions of breaking bread together, telling stories, and sitting in community. These stories will be focused, among other things, on a father's early dreams for his son and how they either came to fruition or changed. Then a father might open a discussion with the group by asking his young adult son to describe his dreams for the future, and encourage the other men to support and encourage him.
In Between Times
What happens between your ceremonies? A lot, I hope. Although passage ceremonies can provide a special focal point for a father's life with his son, quantity time is as important as quality time. Part of my own fatherhood is defined by how I apprentice and mentor my sons. I try to continually ask myself whether I am including them in projects I am doing around the house, taking them on errands, playing with them, and offering them the opportunity to observe me interacting with other adults. There are hundreds of things a father can do daily with his son.
Evan Scott is a writer and father who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his family. This is his first contribution to Minnesota Parent.
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