How to establish rites of passage for your child

Author: Canadian Living


How to establish rites of passage for your child

There are many cultures around the world that celebrate the transition from child to youth to adult. But here in North America we tend to loosely mark growing up through one-time events, such as getting a driver's license, having a sweet sixteen party or graduating from high school. Without adding responsibility and developing skill, many teens face a struggle for self-identification.

Becoming a warrior
But consider our friend Naabala didn't become a Maasai warrior overnight. First, he needed to prove himself. When we were visiting his community, Naabala told us about the first step in these ceremonial rites of passage. He started out at age five by fetching water. When he had shown he was responsible, eight-year-old Naabala was charged with taking care of his family’s cattle.

This isn't just a typical chore – it's a great honour. Livestock is vital to a family's welfare. If one is lost to a predator, it affects the family's food and income source. Naabala explained he was nervous. But, after a pep talk from his father and advice from the elder warriors, he soon honed his watchful eye and began developing his survival skills.

He also proved he could make a vital contribution to his family and, one day, become a formidable warrior. Naabala explained this responsibility came with a great sense of purpose, and his family celebrated accomplishment. It helped prepare him for his final initiation as a warrior and the transition into adulthood.

Prolonging adolescence
In North America, young people are too often viewed as adults-in-waiting. In the absence of formal rituals, many youths end up creating their own milestones associated with alcohol, drugs, sex or consumption.

In the absence of clear markers of adulthood, we see a dramatic prolonging of adolescence throughout our society. As we walked with Naabala – who so proudly dressed in the traditional red cloth that marked him as a warrior – we couldn't imagine him living in his parents' basement playing videogames well into his 20s.

Naabala's rites of passage occurred throughout his childhood. Each one carried great honour, and at 12 he was ready to prepare for the final step towards adulthood. Naabala was asked to clear a spot on his father's land and build himself a mud hut. This would be his adult home once he completed his warrior initiation.

Over a period of several months, Nabaala submitted to tests of his courage, fortitude and skill. At one point, under the supervision of the village elders, he had to anger a colony of stinging fire ants before lying down among them. The boy was not allowed to show pain or discomfort through the ants’ feast. The same was true for another ritual in which hot embers were placed on his skin.

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Although this may sound barbaric, it's essential warrior training: when hunting or scouting on the savannah, a yelp of pain could startle predators, putting the entire group in danger.
To symbolize the end of his adolescence, Naabala started a formal ceremony. He bathed in the river and left his boyhood chores to undergo a ritual circumcision. Then, he was given a spear, cattle, a baton-like weapon and his ceremonial red cloth.
Naabala and a few other teens then headed out on a hunt, only to return when he had killed a lion.
For Naabala, each step in this process carried deep meaning. His accomplishments were a source of pride. Upon completion, he gladly took his place as a Maasai warrior and had earned a voice in the decision-making process of his village.
Now, we're not suggesting as a Canadian equivalent that parents should send their kids into the wilderness to hunt a moose. But there is something to be said for these kinds of rituals.
Giving kids responsibilities
Psychologist David Baum held his own version with his stepson. When the boy was nine, Baum gave him a pep talk about bravery, courage and overcoming fears as they set out into the woods surrounding their rural home. As dusk settled, Baum left the boy in the growing darkness (never really going too far away).
After about an hour, Baum rang a bell, signaling his stepson make his way home. He says the initiation was simple, but it taught the nine-year-old how to overcome fear and anxiety. Together, they marked it as an essential moment in boy’s growth.
While the Jewish faith celebrates this transition through bar or bat mitzvahs and others mark debutante balls, confirmations or graduations, it’s important for all families to create their own rites of passage.
Parents can build on chores to give their children more responsibility and then celebrate when they succeed. As their kids get older, they can then encourage them to take bigger steps towards adulthood through volunteer travel or gap years.
This helps kids find purpose and develop fortitude. Of course, that’s not something that will happen overnight – first, they have to prove it to themselves.
Tips for parents:
  1. Celebrate milestones: Take the time to really mark first-time occasions such as obtaining a driver's license, getting a job or voting for the first time.
  2. Reward with responsibility: Prepare kids for adulthood by making them take charge.
  3. Mind the gap: In Europe, many students take the year between high school and university to work, travel, volunteer or combine all three. This is a great way for them to see world, learn and find their purpose.

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Craig and Marc Kielburger are cofounders of Free The Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education. Their newest book, The World Needs Your Kid, is co-authored with journalist Shelley Page and focuses on raising socially conscious kids who care and contribute.

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How to establish rites of passage for your child