Raising Sons: Initiating them into the World of Men (Rite of Passage)

rite of passage

“You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.” – Wally M. Schirra, American Naval Officer & Astronaut, 1923-2007

I have two sons, Harvey (16) and Liam (13), who have birthdays that fall on the same day, July 22. This makes July a fairly busy, and expensive, month. While a lot of people celebrate the 16th year with some significance, for us it’s the 13th, which is the year my sons are the guests of honor in what has become known as a “Man Ceremony”. The idea of having an event or ceremony to initiate sons into the world of men came about in two ways. Firstly, my grandfather gave me my first pocket knife when I was seven. I don’t remember the scene exactly, except that it was just me and him and it was probably a small Case knife. The whole event took about 30 seconds; him handing me the knife, telling me to take care of it and the usual stuff that goes along with this sort of thing. Yet, the significance of that moment has stayed with me for 30 years, and will for another 30 and more, God willing. I took this as a notion that a boy ought to get a knife when he’s seven, as if it were a rule of sorts that I should adhere to. So, when my boys were seven years old, they both got a pocket knife. This initiation at the age of seven is fairly straightforward, but says all of the right things to a boy: you’re a little older now and can be trusted to be a little dangerous.

The second means by which this idea really solidified was from one of John Eldredge’s booksmaybe Wild at Heart or The Way of the Wild Heart, it doesn’t really matter you should read them all — in which Eldredge mentions a ceremony and the giving of weapons (or whatever best suited a particular boy) to his sons as a way of honoring their coming of age. I had the opportunity to do this with my eldest, Harvey, three years ago, and again this year with Liam. It is an impactful time and, with Liam’s permission, I would like to share a bit of how this works in our house so that it may inspire other fathers to do something similar.

The Man Ceremony and Other Rites of Passage

As I have written before, and you have likely experienced yourself, men compartmentalize life very well. Our minds typically think in terms of structures and boundaries such as concrete points in time, clearly defined goals, straightforward talk, and so forth. This is likely why we find rituals developing so naturally in the areas of our lives that are dominated by men, few as they may be. We like to “mark the occasion.”

Moses stacked stones, Australian Aborigines have their six-month walkabout, Army Airborne’s receive their Blood-Wings, and so it goes with just about any special group or occasion we come up with. It makes sense, then, knowing how men work, to have a time which signifies a crossing of a threshold, into the world of men.

What’s the Point?

“Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.”  – Epictetus

Before I get into how the Man Ceremony proceeds at our house, I think it is good to understand what the purpose is. The day of Liam’s ceremony, the whole family was riding in the car and an argument broke out. The details aren’t important, but there was some unmanly and ungrateful talk coming from Liam and it upset his mom a good deal. Summer said, “ I think you should just cancel the ceremony and take back his gift.” Essentially she was saying, “ He doesn’t deserve a man ceremony if he can’t act like a man.” I was really challenged in that moment to articulate, even to myself, what this was all about.

The goal of this commemorative event is not to announce to the world that my son is indeed a man simply because he has reached a certain age. Rather, it is to tell him that, like it or not, he is entering into a world of men with manly consequences and manly expectations. It is to establish in his heart and mind the notion that being a man is a purposeful effort which does not come about simply by growing older. To allow other men to speak into his life some words of wisdom, and words of caution, and to have an understanding that if he cannot cross the threshold on his own, there are at least a few men who will help him.

How it Works

The Man Ceremony in our home is fairly straightforward, especially as compared to, say, a Bar Mitzvah. Not wanting a party atmosphere to take away from the larger point, it is pretty low-key, and open to men and their sons only.

Invite a Few Good Men

Here is a number of good men gathered around Liam (middle blue)

Wendell Berry says something in one of his books which I am going to terribly paraphrase because I can’t find it: “ By the time a boy reaches the age where he can be of some practical use to his father, he is mighty tired of listening to him.”

This is why uncles and coaches have such a great impact on us. They may give the same advice as our father, but because they are not our father we listen. I like to invite about 10 men and their sons over to the commemoration, knowing that not all will be able to make it. These men generally know my sons or are men of character whom I admire.

I asked these honorable gents to share some bit of their life or give some advice to my son that they wish their father had given to them. It is a rich time among friends. Every male present is made a little, or perhaps a lot, better by what is shared.

Present Your Son with a Manly Gift

Liam opening his backpack; the manly gift he received.

For Harvey, a huge Lord of the Rings fan, coming up with a gift was easy: the sword Sting. This is Bilbo’s, and consequently Frodo’s, sword for those of you who have been under a rock for the last few decades. In fact, if you didn’t know what Sting was and the significance, consider your man-card temporarily revoked until you’ve at least watched the movies, or better yet read the books. I digress.

For Liam, the choice wasn’t as easy. He is a boy of many varied interests, many of which are more transient in nature. I want my sons to get something they will hold on to for the rest of their lives. A GoPro just won’t have the same appeal in 5 or 15 years. That being said, I decided to get him a rugged backpack, for hiking and such. I was somewhat inspired by the movie Walter Mitty, but also because he’s in Scouts and we will be spending some time together in that venture. Sometimes it isn’t the things we are carrying with us that matter; it’s the miles we’ve traveled.

Some Thoughts from the Men

I am fortunate to have met a number of excellent men over the years. Here is a bit of the wisdom they shared with my son.

The Decisions You Make will have Consequences

This advice was given to Liam from a police officer friend whom he looks up to and respects quite a bit.

“In my experience, ages 13 to 16 are the years when good boys start up Fools Hill. They get a little more freedom and start being influenced by some boys who are older than them. Wanting to fit in they start to make bad decisions. At your age, the decisions you make can have consequences for the rest of your life. Most boys your age don’t have the ability to look ahead and think about what their actions are going to mean later in life. That’s why you need the help of parents and other men in your life, to help you think down the road and make good decisions and stay out of trouble.”

For the Coward there is no Life

A good friend of the family, an uncle to my son for all the right reasons, brought this manly quote to the table and wore the shirt with the quote.

“For the Coward there is no Life. For the Hero, there is no Death.”

I Wish my Father Had Done this for Me

A particularly touching moment, one which helped set the tone for the rest of the time, was brought to bear by a good friend.

Eric: “I can imagine that if I were in your shoes, when I was your age, having all of these guys around and having my dad talk to me about this stuff might be kind of embarrassing.”

Liam: “Yeah, I didn’t really want to do it.”

Eric: “Yeah, I wouldn’t have either. But let me tell you something. I’m in my forties now and my dad never did anything like this for me and I wish he had done something like this for me. Let me tell you something else, Liam…your dad loves you.”

Final Thoughts

There’s plenty more I could share, but I think it’s best if some things stay between the men on that day. I want to encourage every father out there to do something like this for his son(s). I’ll tell you this as well, and I have never met a man who would disagree, it’s never too late. If your boy is in his forties, it will be appreciated.

What about fathers of daughters? To be honest, I don’t have any girls so I don’t really have any experience in this. In the little reading I have done, and being that most females are less compartmentalized than us and tend to mix all of life together, a girl’s transition into womanhood comes along with the unexpected and obvious transitions of her body (I feel weird even writing that). But, there are some ceremonies as well such as a Bat Mitzvah and Quinceañera. While I don’t know how that should look, I do think it is important for a girl to know, for certain, that her father recognizes her becoming a woman. Any thoughts on this would be certainly appreciated.

I would love to hear from other dads who have done something like this for their sons.

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