Friday, September 2, 2011

Male Initiation

A true initiation never ends.
-Robert Anton Wilson-
As discussed in an earlier post, very few boys have a healthy way of becoming a man in our society.  They join gangs or a fraternity but these initiations miss some important parts of being a true man. 

We have no rite of passage in our society, a way for a boy to symbolically move from the status of being a boy to being a man.  I believe that is why we see the dependency age of youth continually getting older and older.  Kids think they are independent at 18 but most are dependent on their parents until 24 or 25 and some much older than that.  At one time in our history men were getting married at the age of 15, and going off to war at age 12.  We would never dream of that in our society, “we’ve come a long way from those times” is what we typically tell ourselves.  Have we really come that far though?  Are we really making that much progress in the social structure of our society?  No one can deny that we have come a long way with technology but I feel we have taken a huge step back in terms of our social structure.  We feel that by allowing a boy just to figure things out on his own that we are being kind and understanding and letting him go at his own pace.  The truth is that boys are craving and secretly longing for guidance from a strong man in their lives.  They want someone to tell them they are a man and they want to be shown the ways of men. 

A rite of passage is not an informal event.  It is a very planned out intentional event designed to show a boy that he has arrived, that he has crossed a threshold.  It is very important that these events contain 3 parts
1.     The Decent
2.     The Journey
3.     Reintegration/ Recognition
Without the three parts the rite of passage fails in its attempt.
We often do not provide this for boys and actually create a situation where they feel deprived of it.  Boys often feel lost and insecure about their own masculinity and finally grow tired of it and seek out a rite of passage on their own.  This typically looks like joining a gang, a fraternity or engaging in some risky behavior.  Unfortunately many of these initiations contain all the parts of a true initiation and therefore the boy feels satisfied with the ritual and feels indebted to the group, often consisting of criminal or ignorant behavior.  Lets look quickly at a gang initiation.  

When a boy joins a gang there is a very formal and ritualistic way that this is done.  The boy leaves the home of his mother and gathers in some place with the gang, often not feeling welcome or part of the group (the descent).  After he gathers with the group a process occurs in which the boy is beat up by several other boys for a period of time.  During this time pretty much anything goes.  The boy has to take the blows and the harsh words coming at him (The Journey).  After this beating is done the boy crosses a threshold.  He has endured the trial and has arrived.  He is now a man and part of the gang.  He is welcomed by his fellows who are now much more friendly,  and he will often ceremonially be given a bandana and he is now part of this group of men (reintegration).  Unfortunately with this group of men he will be required to engage in a lot of criminal activity that will often lead him to a life behind bars.  This, sadly, is what many boys think it means to be a man.
So what needs to happen? Boys need a rite of passage!  They need to know they are accepted by a group of men, that they have what it takes and that they have arrived.  Without this they will slip into one of the shadows of the Passive Man or the Masked Man.  If you are a father of a boy or a strong male figure in a boy’s life you need to make this happen!  And not just once, all milestones should be acknowledged with a rite of passage, Spermarche (The first ejaculatory experience of a boy), Turning 12 ( the traditional age of manhood), Turning 16, graduating high school, marriage, There are many times in a boys life where we can take an opportunity to accept him into our world.  I believe that the spermarche is an important moment in a boys life that is often missed by fathers.  Often times boys don’t know what happened, it happens at night and many boys think they just pissed the bed.  This is something that a boy should know about and be looking forward to.  In the book Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Steven James and David S. Thomas they retell a story of a man who made a great bonding experience out of this event.  This man had explained to his son what would happen and told him that when it did happen he was to come wake him up, no mater how late.  When this did happen the father congratulated his son and the next day they went out to a very manly dinner at a steak house.  I’m sure that boy had a very real sense that he had in fact arrived. 

While all these milestones should be celebrated a father should choose some time to do a very real and symbolic rite of passage, an event, which literally covers all 3 of the above parts.  My boss at work ( a woman) has done this with all of her 5 daughters, yes I know this is about male initiation but it is just as important for girls and I believe this woman does an amazing job.  In order to initiate her daughters into the adult world my friend takes her daughters on a 3 week backpacking trip into the wilderness (the decent).  They journey for 3 weeks, at times going on 3 day solos, meaning that they camp in solitude for 3 days not moving from their spot.  They experience tough times but they learn a great deal about themselves (the journey) after the trip they return home as new people.  They have arrived as women (reintegration).

So what about those who are now adults who never had an event like this in their lives?  What about those men out there who feel they never have been integrated into the world of men and long for that?  (I would bet that most of us feel that way if we look deep inside).  What about them?  There are organizations out there that recognize the lack of initiation in our society and that are creating this for men in this modern world.  The one I believe is the most powerful and now has a brotherhood of 43,000+ is the Mankind Project.  The Mankind Project hosts a series of events call the New Warriors Training Adventure, that creates a rite of passage for those men who were deprived of that.  If you feel this is lacking in your life, you should check it out. 

Look at your life and ask yourself if you were ever really initiated into the world of men or if you just let it happen.  If not give yourself the gift of that and get that for yourself n your life.  If you have a son start now, planning an initiation and rite of passage for him it is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. 


  1. Thanks man! It is something I feel pretty passionate about. Thanks for reading it!

  2. This is great! Thus far we have only one male ritual in our home. The boys got the "man talk" at age nine. Our youngest just had his recently and he had a huge decent because he wanted it soooo bad! After getting it they are sworn to not discuss with friends because their folks may not want them to know! Lol. It is a big deal because stuck to our guns and it has been magical. Looking for a new ritual as my oldest is nearing 16. Any ideas?

  3. Shala,
    Thanks for reading! It makes me happy to hear that you are educating your boys and creating a special moment out of it, they will be better men because of it. To answer your question about ideas for your 16 year old. I think that a rite of passage is a very personal thing that should be tailored to each individual kid. I have thought a lot about this for my boys but my oldest is only 22 months and my next should arrive here any day. So my 16 year old rites of passages are a long ways off. For me the outdoors and wilderness are a special place and I believe can teach some very powerful lessons. I believe the solo as I mentioned above can be a very powerful soul searching experience. What I have thought would be a great idea would be after the solo have my son walk back to where our main camp is and as he walks have important men in his life along the trail; grandpa, uncle, family friend, coach, and finally dad. Each person will give him some manly advice on life. Once back at camp They all can have some male bonding and when they return home to you there should be some sort of celebration with men and women in his life celebrating his return as something different than when he left. Allow him to feel that he left as a boy and returned a man. Presenting him with something manly and special that he previously could not have, such as a nice knife, might be a neat tangible way for him to feel he has arrived as a man. I guarantee for the next few weeks he will pull that item out every time he is alone and just look at it. Because for him it means "I am a man"

    I hope that helps. A great book to read is "Wild Things; The Art of Nurturing Boys" It has a great chapter on creating a rite of passage which is actually where a lot of my ideas I just told you came from.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. @Shala- You and your son should check out out "Boys to Men" ( From their web site: "Imagine Boy Scouts, Big Brothers, and Outward Bound combined. We provide a complete program with community, mentoring, and a Rite of Passage adventure that serves both boys and men."

    -Doug Thomas

  5. I, too, am very passionate about this. Great post; great ideas!

  6. I am glad I did not go through this scenario. I would have enjoyed receiving some music from friends and family but not a knife. I was raised in an environment that was centered around being well rounded. I enjoyed this much better and didn't feel like I had to live up to any manhood or womanhood type rituals. Just myself, and what Christ would want me to do. Teaching people to worry about being one way or another is something I am passionate about in the opposite sense. Not that bonding isn't important but labeling is always a dangerous thing and teaches prejudice and like we must live within certain boundaries. Just use caution as you help your children learn how to be great PEOPLE.