My husband and I are constantly looking at resources for raising children. Of particular concern to us is enjoying our (soon-to-be) teenagers as we help them develop into independent, happy, responsible adults. No celebrity-like teenagers for us, thank you very much!
In our searching, we have come across the intriguing idea of coming-of-age rituals. Historically known as a tradition associated with Native American and African tribes, these rituals often contain physical and spiritual elements. When a child successfully completes these trials, he or she is officially considered an adult, with attendant responsibilities and privileges.
These rituals have been all but lost in our western culture today, though they were once regarded as a crucial stepping stone in many civilizations. Richard Rohr, a noted author and theologian, has noted that only in our western culture has it been deemed unnecessary to initiate our children.
In our quest to raise children who become contributors to the world, and to help them avoid typical teen angst and destructive behaviors, my husband and I decided this was something we wanted to implement in our family.
We have enjoyed a few resources in particular that have helped us do this. Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, Raising Real Men, (both the book and the blog) and the blog The Art of Manliness also has many excellent articles explaining how important these rituals are.
As Stephen James and David Thomas of Wild Things have put it:
In our postmodern culture of rapid change and global transformation, boys are wrestling with questions of identity, morality and belonging . . . If we don't create rites of passage for our boys, they will find their own. If we don't mark their passage into the fellowship of men, they will create experiences that make them feel like the men they long to become.
Though these books speak specifically of boys, my husband and I agreed that our daughter Katie, who is our oldest, needed this as well. In this world of increasing sexualization of women, young girls are often given the message that their worth lies only in their ability to be sexy. We want our daughter to know that she is a strong, capable person, who is smart, loving, and faith-filled. We wanted her to have a guide throughout these potentially turbulent years, taking her to calm but deep waters.
We decided to have a coming of age celebration for all our children—an event that does not celebrate arriving at adulthood, but the coming changes and transformation—the beginning of growing into adulthood. My husband and I chose age 12 to do this celebration. Our church has a transition for children at this point, and we also wanted to do the celebration before our daughter’s body started changing a lot.
We began by asking the women in our family to write a letter to Katie. What they wrote was up to them, but we listed some suggestions: What does it mean to be a woman? What do you like about being a woman? What do you wish you would have known during your teenage years—about boys, about your body, etc.? What advice do you have?
The result was tremendous. Most of Katie's grandmothers and aunts were hesitant and unsure about what to write. This was a very vulnerable and sensitive thing to ask of them, but they are marvelous women with a lot of wisdom and insight. The letters were more than we had hoped for. We also asked her grandfathers to write a letter about what they appreciate and love about women. Lastly, my husband and I also wrote a letter.
In addition, we collected stories about strong women in our family, female historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Mother Teresa, and women in our community we admired. I put all of these in a cute binder with three sections: letters, stories, and inspirational quotes.
On the day of the celebration, we invited the female family members who lived nearby to come to a special lunch, which I let Katie plan. After we ate, I read the letters of those who could not be there. Then I passed around the binder and those who were there read or talked about their own letter. We laughed, and we cried. Perhaps what most surprised me about this event was how much better I came to know and appreciate my sisters and mother—even though we are quite close. I came to see them in a new way as I learned of struggles I never realized they had—and how they overcame them.
At the end of our luncheon, I presented Katie with a special necklace. It was a medallion with a scripture engraved on it that we hoped would guide her in the future. It also had a small tree charm that signified that she will grow into a powerful force, but also represented her personal family tree, with a reminder of the strong women behind her.
Afterward, when I asked my daughter what she thought about the whole thing, she remarked, "The biggest message I got was to not back down from my beliefs when peer pressure comes. I also learned that it is ok to just be me. I don't have to be like everyone else. It was a really good experience."
As my son's twelfth birthday got closer, we followed some of these guidelines from Hal and Melanie Young of Raising Real Men:
1. Make formal invitations similar to wedding or graduation announcements. These do not have to be expensive (you can make them yourself) but they do impress upon your son and all invited how important this celebration is.
2. Do a "manly" activity and invite friends and family. Make it a party! Feed people and have fun!
3. After the activity is finished, now is the time for a presentation. Include in the invitation a request that the men in the family and male friends you respect and admire give your son lesson (we did a letter), perhaps with an object attached to it about what it means to be a "real man." An example is a hammer-- with the reminder that his life (like a hammer) can be used to create and beautify or to destroy. Boys are often very tactile, which is one reason why objects work so well as teaching tools.
4. After the celebration, it is important to give the young man or young woman extra responsibilities as well as privileges, and let them savor growing into adulthood. They will rise to the occasion every time and often surprise you!
We decided that instead of lunch, for our son we would have a full blown, day long party! (Poor Katie—she got short changed due to our lack of experience!)
All the men went out into the local national forest. They did some target shooting, ax throwing, and just plain horsing around. A good friend cooked up some delicious dutch oven food and the whole day was spent in good company, with good food and conversation.
At dusk, they started the bonfire. As my husband explained the purpose of this tradition, the mood changed. Around the fire, the men shared their experiences and letters. Our son received a walking stick from his grandfather, in memory of his great-great grandfather who was a pioneer and crossed the American plains five times in his efforts to help others travel safely. This stick was to remind him to always go the extra mile-especially when helping others. He received a ratchet set from his uncle—a reminder that there is always a solution to a problem if you look hard enough and keep trying. There were other gifts as well, all equally thoughtful.
Lastly, my husband gave him a leatherman multi-tool with an engraving on it. It was a reminder that he has all the tools in life that he needs to succeed; he just needs to work hard and remember to use what he has been blessed with. We again put all of the letters, stories and quotes in a binder for him to continue to learn from.
All in all, though very different, these experiences our family has had with Coming of Age Celebrations have been wildly successful. In retrospect, the only thing I would have changed is that I wish we would have included a physical or other type of challenge to help our children see that they could do hard things and gain confidence in the process. But it was was such a bonding and inspirational event, that extended family members are planning on carrying on the tradition with their own children!
These young people will one day be full-fledged adults in the real world where self-respect, self-discipline, responsibility, wise decisions and hard work are required. Often the consequences are very harsh if these lessons have not been learned in the safety of home.
As we encourage our growing children to become adults in an age-appropriate manner, we raise a generation of empowered, independent, capable, and confident young adults—who do not look to misguided peers or media for cues on how to behave, but to the trusted men and women who have carefully mentored them. Thanks to them, the future looks bright!
**If you'd like a step-by-step guide to help you create an amazing, personalized experience like this for YOUR child, check out The Coming of Age Celebration Guidebook. The feedback I've gotten from it has been amazing:
"This was the best day of my life...The collective beauty and wisdom was just so overwhelming. Our young people are worth so much and I just hope they know it. Thanks to everyone who helped, who wrote letters, who came, and those who couldn't make it, you were missed. Thanks so much for the priceless idea, you've made a difference!" -Emilie N.
"Jen...this is amazing. Just got the Coming of Age book- this is really fantastic. Side note- you should be charging WAY more for this...so so so impressed. Seriously so grateful for this." -Danielle T.
Learn more here.
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