All young people must have rites of passage to transition into adulthood. But what do rites of passage even look like for us today?
In all likelihood, we don’t see or experience any formal rites of passage in our American society today because we don’t understand the value in it—and because we fear stepping outside the cultural norm.
Odds are, not many of us had a rite of passage that was a formal rite of passage. It’s just very, very rare.
Note: I’ve written about rites of passage for boys and girls, but this post is specifically geared toward rites of passage for boys.
When Does a Boy Become a Man?
So it makes sense, then, that we might not have the first idea about where to start with this whole idea of a rite of passage, but that’s okay. When we learn the value of a rite of passage, we will want to give that to our young people, no matter how unconventional it may be.
Many different cultures around the world have rites of passage for young people in their teenage years. They carry out these rites of passage with intention and a powerful meaning behind them.
So where do we even begin with a rite of passage?
If I were to ask you, “When does a boy become a man?” I might get 20 different answers.
- When they vote?
- When they can drive a car?
- When they have their first drink?
- When they have their first sexual encounter?
- When they join the military or get a job?
None of these answers would be the same from society to society. So what is the answer?
When does a boy become a man? A boy becomes a man when the elders of his society declare him to be one.
The most important elders are his parents. In the case of a young man, the most important elder is typically his father.
When a young boy’s father declares him to be a man, and treats him as such, the perspective and mindset of that young boy begin to shift.
Learn more in-depth about how to walk alongside young people and help shape them into mature spiritual adults in the book Mentoring Moments by Brian D. Molitor.
The Difference Between Manhood and Maturity
Keep in mind that there’s an important difference between manhood and maturity. One comes over time and with wisdom, and one can happen in a moment.
Understand that a rite of passage won’t make a young male instantly mature. But a rite of passage will make a young male instantly a man.
You might think, “Why does that matter? You’re just playing with words. Isn’t that just semantics?” No, I’m not just playing with words, and it isn’t semantics.
If you take a young male who is around fourteen or fifteen and a little unsure of his manhood—because he’s never been affirmed by his elders—if he is confronted with the opportunity to sleep with women, join a gang, do something exciting or crazy, drive really fast, etc., what is he going to do?
If that young male is trying to prove his own manhood, what is likely to be his answer to those things? Yes or no?
It will likely be yes.
Yet if you take the same young male and let him experience a rite of passage with men who affirm his manhood and give him the charge of pursuing maturity for the rest of his life, and then he’s presented those same opportunities, what will he choose?
He will likely choose the maturer, wiser option. He will likely say to himself, “No, those are not the acts of mature men.”
How will he know that? He will know that because mature men have mentored him and because his mentors have affirmed that he is a young man now who must pursue maturity.
The pursuit of a young man must become maturity, not manhood.
No longer does he do acts to prove his manhood, but he knows what he is and pursues it further.
You see the difference? It’s a huge one in the mind of a young person.
Young males often wonder, “Am I a man? How do I become a man? What is ‘being a man’ all about? What should I do?”
Their hormones are raging, and their bodies are changing, and somebody must affirm what’s happening within.
Someone needs to come alongside and say, “Those changes in your body, in your mind, in your hormones, and the sexuality stuff that’s going on, let me explain it to you so you’re not freaked out or make rash decisions.”
Every young person needs a group of older, wiser people to come alongside them, to explain life to them—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A young person will benefit so much from a special time of transition that communicates, “Now you’re one of us. We’re with you.”
An Example of a Rite of Passage
Let me tell you what we did several years ago when my oldest son was transitioning into his teenage years. Basically, I put together a modern-day rite of passage for him.
I sent letters out to thirty friends of mine. These were all men whom my son looked up to.
In the letter, I explained my idea for having a rite of passage for my son. I knew we were essentially making things up as we went along, but we were going to carry out this rite of passage no matter what.
I asked each man to write my son a letter, to bring him a symbolic gift, and to show up at a gathering on a specific night at seven o’clock.
My son and I walked into the place on the night of the event. I initially figured only half a dozen guys would show up because the others would be watching a ballgame at home or doing all sorts of other stuff.
At the start the evening, we performed some skits. Some were about how men deal with their emotions. Others were about choices that men make. Some showed how men tend to want to go it alone without asking for help.
And my beautiful, 13-year-old son sat in the front. His eyes were big, and he just took it all in.
Because before him were men whom he respected. He knew these were his dad’s friends who had shown up to spend several hours to bless him for a lifetime.
After the skits, the guys went up and started to read their letters. I read the first one; it was from my father-in-law.
My father-in-law is not an educated man. He’s a big, hulking guy—a farmer. He was a World War II hero.
This big hero of a guy—who was shy—had said to me beforehand, “I’m not reading that in front of those people. You read it.” And I told him yes.
Being Received Into Community in America
I started reading his letter. It was so beautiful to me because there was one generation, two generations, three generations.
And in that letter to his grandson, he told how wonderful it is to have grandkids, and he shared how great it is to serve your country and to love your God.
His symbolic gift was a Christmas ornament. The ornament had the year “1984” written on it on it. My wife and I had given it to Grandma and Grandpa to announce their first grandson was coming.
And Grandpa had given the ornament back to him. It was powerful.
One after the other, the men came up and read their letters. They told him about manhood, about growing up, and about the challenges he would face.
And they brought out such awesome, symbolic gifts. My son received a woodsman’s compass, fishing lures, and my dad’s old skinning knife, among other things. It was awesome.
One of my friends walked over to my son—and he had a beautiful silver nugget ring on—and said, “This is very precious, very valuable, and from this day forward it is yours.”
If a young guy receives something like that from a man he respects, he will gain confidence. He will begin understanding he has value. He will realize the men of his community have received him.
Show the Power of Belief
After the gifts and the letters, we had a time of prayer. We laid hands on my son’s head, and I was able to say the same words that the Father spoke over his Son.
“You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
I also said, “From this day forward, I receive you as a man.”
Then my friends came up and put their hands on his shoulders. My son could then feel the strength of other men who believed in him.
They said that from that day forward he would be received as a man, and if he ever needed anything, then he could come to any of them and be received as a friend.
In my book Mentoring Moments, I focus on how to guide the young people whom God places in our path. Much like my friends sacrificed their time to mentor my son at this moment, you can do the same for young people.
Mentoring a young man is like putting a rod of iron down a young man’s back.
Such a young man will square his shoulders and move on into life with a strength and purpose he didn’t have before.
Rites of Passage or Rebellion?
A rite of passage is a time of transition. We must have it for our young people.
If we don’t give it to them, they will drift when they hit the teenage years, which are so confusing and difficult to get through.
Also, if we don’t make it clear to young people who they are and what they are capable of, we do them a disservice. If we inadvertently communicate that they are not really a boy anymore but also not really a man either, what can we expect from them?
Instead, we go along expecting young people to be rebellious because that’s what we’ve learned to anticipate. But rebellion doesn’t have to happen.
And it won’t happen if we receive these young men in their early teenage years and walk with them. If we run with them, their lives will go differently.
Because you know what? Then they won’t want to rebel. What is there to rebel against?
When we’ve told them that they are capable and affirmed their status and responsibility for pursuing maturity, why would they rebel against that?
The rebellion of young people is generally against authority because they have not been released to become men.
When we receive them as young men, there’s nothing to push against. They just can’t wait to grab you and come along with you.
What young men in your life need a rite of passage? Share this gift with those who need your guidance.
Be sure to check out Brian D. Molitor’s book Mentoring Moments to learn more about how to guide young people in their faith journey.
This post was adapted from an audio transcript provided by Brian D. Molitor. Used with permission.