Growing up involves many milestones. The first few tend to be moments that inspire family videos and excited phone calls to grandparents. Our first laugh, first words, and first steps are enormously important events in our development, and they deserve to be celebrated, but most of us probably aren’t particularly aware at the time that we have done anything special. We’re just trying to figure things out.
As we get older, the milestones begin to matter more to us. We start anticipating the moments that prove we’re not just a little kid anymore: the first time we ride a bike without training wheels, the first day of “big” school, the move from t-ball, to coach-pitch, and finally to kid-pitch. Each step provides us with more proof that we’re moving forward.
It’s important to be able to gauge your progress.
A milestone can mark the completion of our efforts to reach a goal. Reaching these milestones means that we have learned or done whatever is necessary to earn another “merit badge of life” and we never have to go back. Potty training and tying our own shoes both represent this sort of achievement. So does learning to read well enough to start enjoying chapter books. We grow taller and need the next size clothes. We promote to higher grades in school. In each case, we check the block and move on to the next thing.
There are other milestones that mark beginnings. These moments usually have far more to do with what we’ll do from that moment on than what we did to get there in the first place. They are doors through which new opportunities and responsibilities become available, when we suddenly consider things that never before occurred to us. Like when that girl we’ve always played soccer with at school changes overnight into someone full of wonderful mystery who has the power to scramble our thoughts and our words. In that moment we are transformed; our lives will never be the same.
Throughout history, different cultures and groups have marked the milestones of growing up with formal ceremonies. Different faiths celebrate circumcision, a child’s first communion, or their baptism. Some celebrate the successful completion of religious education or the first solo hunt. When we graduate from high school we get a fancy diploma at a formal ceremony where we wear strange hats with tassels. The act of gathering as a community to recognize these important moments has meaning, even if the reasons for some of the details are unclear to us. It ties us to the history of those who came before us.
Tradition is important.
The Bible documents several instances where fathers formally bestowed blessings on their sons. Most of us don’t really have a modern-day equivalent for this tradition. Philip’s kindergarten teacher thought she’d change that. After spending the year getting to know each of the children in her class, Mrs. Nesman sat down and wrote a blessing for each of them. Each blessing was unique. She tried to capture what she saw in them, and to inspire them with her words. We still have Philip’s blessing. It goes like this:
Like a rock… physically strong, solid like
granite, well grounded, unmovable in his
beliefs, dependable like the firm foundation
that cannot be washed away; potential like
an uncut diamond ready to shine on those
who need his strength
Mrs. Nesman’s blessing gave us an idea.
In our culture, we don’t really have a traditional ceremonial way to mark a boy’s transition into manhood. Without the benefit of something like a bar mitzvah or a dream quest, young men in much of America today have to use things like getting their license, or their first job, or their first whiskers to mark their progress toward becoming men. The problem is that these events don’t provide any real closure. A young man can achieve them and still not be sure he has arrived.
In part, this is because none of those things have any connection with history through tradition. They don’t have any personal meaning. There’s nothing about them to inspire a young man to greater things.
We wanted our boys to have something that did all of those, so we made one up.
We started by reading about the ceremonies that already exist in other cultures and borrowed freely from them. We read books about blessing our kids. Gary Smalley’s book “The Blessing” was especially helpful. We found a great resource called “Raising a Modern Day Knight” that provides ideas for ceremonies and talks about the importance of meaningful symbols. We looked for ways to incorporate the importance of family, and we found inspirational quotes and verses.
In the end we settled on a four part ceremony that we held for each of our boys when they turned fifteen. The ceremony involved Karen and me, and both of our fathers. It included honorable men from the lives of our sons. There were special mementos to help them remember things, and a knighting ceremony at the end.
We called it our “Rite of Passage,” and over the next few posts I’ll tell you about it.
originally published 11/7/11| next post Rite of Passage – the preparation