Rites of Passage for Your Son
David Wills faced a monumental task. Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania appointed him to oversee the burial of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. In addition, the 32-year-old attorney was to plan a dedication ceremony for this pivotal Civil War battle.
The task was daunting. Following the July 1863 conflict, Gettysburg had taken on the appearance — and the stench — of an open-air mortuary. Thousands of human bodies lay scattered over the fields and hills, decaying in the heat. Others were buried but, as Willis reported to Governor Curtin, “in many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude, and my attention had been directed to several places where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them.”1 Human scavengers picked at the exposed bodies for anything of value. Meanwhile, grieving relatives scoured the fields, searching for fathers and sons. Gettysburg had become a “carnival of carnage.” Like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, the grisly features of death were pervasive, revolting, visceral.
Something had to be done. David Wills did it. But at every turn, he was like a man stumbling in the dark. He started by forming an interstate commission to finance the project. Seventeen acres were purchased for a cemetery, and a company was retained to exhume, prepare and bury the bodies. (Willis had hoped to have the burial completed before the November ceremony, but it wouldn’t be finished until the following spring.)
Having resolved the pressing issues of burial and hygiene, the agent turned his attention toward the ceremony itself. Willis desired to memorialize the sacrifices of these brave men by staging an elaborate ceremony. According to the conventional wisdom of his day, this entailed securing a powerful orator who could lend dignity to the event, someone who would speak for two hours (as was the custom) and bring a lofty perspective to the proceedings. Without question, Edward Everett was the man.
An Ivy League scholar and former Secretary of State, Everett was considered the preeminent orator of his generation. He had dedicated the battlefields at Lexington and Concord as well as Bunker Hill. Almost as an afterthought, David Wills also extended an invitation — two months later — to President Lincoln, with the request that Lincoln deliver only “a few appropriate remarks.”
On November 19, 1863, an estimated 20,000 people gathered for the ceremony. They had traveled by horse, train and carriage from as far away as Minnesota to participate in the event. Under a blue sky, Lincoln and Everett, along with a host of other dignitaries, sat on a raised platform amid a sea of onlookers.
The ceremony began. First there was music. Then a prayer. And more music. Then it was time for the keynote address. Edward Everett’s presentation was worthy of his reputation. For two hours, he held the crowd in thrall with his fiery language, his childlike animation and his detailed description of the battle.
Following a hymn, Lincoln stepped to the podium. “Four score and seven years ago,” he began … and before anyone knew it, he was finished. The crowd, which hadn’t expected much, was still surprised by the brevity of his speech. Historian Garry Wills, in his much-acclaimed book Lincoln at Gettysburg, alludes to the story of a photographer who, expecting the president to be at the podium for a while, missed his shot while he slowly set up his camera.2 In 272 words, the president said what he wanted to say and then sat down. The choir sang a dirge, the Reverend H.L. Baugher gave the benediction, and it was over.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Expecting the Unexpected
I share this story to illustrate two important points that will guide and encourage you as you plan manhood ceremonies for your son. First, keep in mind that creating ceremonies is an experimental process. Like David Wills, you will be working in something of a vacuum. However, you can succeed. Later in this module, I will detail the four ceremonies that two other fathers and I have created for our sons. These are now fairly polished and refined. But it wasn’t this way at the beginning. When we started this experimental process — much like David Wills — we didn’t know what we were doing. All we had was a lofty objective: to ceremonialize a vision for manhood. Our final product developed over time, after much trial and error.
Second, ceremonies produce surprises. David Wills had no idea that Lincoln’s speech — not Everett’s — would be the defining moment at Gettysburg. Lincoln’s participation was ancillary, almost accidental. Yet when we think of Gettysburg, we recall the “Gettysburg Address.” Few of us have ever heard of Edward Everett.
The point is, the outcome of ceremonies can be surprising. This was true at Gettysburg; it is equally true of the manhood ceremonies with which we are familiar. In case after case, the testimony of sons about their manhood ceremonies verifies this important point. They express a feeling of awe. They are overwhelmed that their father, and others, would take the time and invest the money to create such memorable experiences.
As dads, we have been overwhelmed, too. The power of ceremony to reaffirm a son’s shaky identity, in some cases redirect his life, and empower his future was wholly unexpected. We have been amazed at the powerful results of our small investment.
Initiating Sons Into Manhood
Here are some key passages in a boy’s journey to manhood.
Years ago I began meeting with two good friends, Bill Wellons and Bill Parkinson, to research, discuss and plan how to raise our sons into manhood. Then Ann Parkinson asked me a question I couldn’t answer. She said: “Robert, how does a young man know when he has become a man?” As the mother of three teenage boys, Ann wanted to know.
The more I thought about the question, the more I realized Bill, Bill and I needed to do something to initiate our sons into manhood. Something tangible. Something memorable. With seven sons between us, we wanted to create something that would empower our boys. So the three concerned fathers got together and took tentative steps toward designing manhood ceremonies.
At our first meeting, someone mentioned the idea of creating a family crest. Bill Parkinson then independently researched the subject of heraldry and brought back some examples.3(A book that helped us in creating our crest is The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, by Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson (New York: Oxford, 1988). It is available in most public libraries. A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (New York: Gramercy, 1978) is also useful. Both books detail hundreds of examples of ancient crests, explaining symbolism and history.) Using these as a guide, we fashioned a crest that reflected our values. Then we took our idea to Nancy Carter, a graphic artist employed by our church. Nancy played with the concept and the colors and developed the finished product. We then had three copies matted and framed and placed in prominent locations in our homes.
Our crest is in the common form of a shield. The Greek words across the top say “Fight the good fight,” an allusion to Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 4:7. The helmet symbolizes the fight of faith. The Greek phrase at the bottom of the crest means, “One Lord, one faith, one hope.”
Three major sections make up the crest. The section on the left — with the sword in the shape of a cross — represents the “conventional” manhood that must be surrendered to Jesus Christ. The section on the right with the crown and wreath symbolizes authentic manhood. (The crown with three jewels stands for the three imperatives of real manhood: rejecting passivity, accepting responsibility, leading courageously; the wreath below stands for the promise of greater reward, God’s reward.) The three swords in the middle represent not only our three families, but the ongoing masculine truths each dad offers a son to fight with for an honorable life.
Key Passages in a Boy’s Life
We now had a major symbol, but we still lacked a process. As our discussions continued, the three of us identified some key passages in a boy’s journey to manhood. With our own experiences as a plumbline, we settled upon these four:
- Puberty — that great transition at the start of adolescence when a boy’s body wreaks havoc with his mind.
- High school graduation — when, for the first time, a young man experiences unbridled freedom.
- College graduation — when a man must face the world and begin to provide for himself. (If your son chooses not to attend college, identify a similar milestone: completion of a vocational training program; beginning of a career-oriented job; conclusion of a military assignment.)
- Marriage — when a man assumes responsibility for a wife and the leadership of a family.
We then decide to craft ceremonies to commemorate these passages and to empower each of our sons with a vision for the next stage. The next articles will go into more details about each ceremony.
Puberty: The ‘Page’ Stage
At this stage in his development, a boy’s body often outpaces his ability to comprehend the changes taking place inside him; he needs a father’s help to make sense of the confusion.
Age 13 is a pivotal time in a boy’s life. A chemical called testosterone, the male sex hormone, which has always been present in smaller amounts, begins to appear in large quantities. Testosterone triggers the development of muscle tissue and transforms a boy’s physical features. It breeds whiskers, pubic hair and often promotes rapid growth.
But the changes are not just physical. As Dr. James Dobson writes in his book Parenting Isn’t for Cowards:
I believe parents and even behavioral scientists have underestimated the impact of the biochemical changes occurring in puberty. We can see the effect of these hormones on the physical body, but something equally dynamic is occurring in the brain. How else can we explain why a happy, contented, cooperative twelve-year-old suddenly becomes a sullen, angry, depressed, thirteen-year-old?1
At this stage in his development, a boy’s body often outpaces his ability to comprehend the changes taking place inside him. Puberty is a confusing time for a young man. His sexual desires become intense and predominating. A boy needs a father’s help to make sense of the confusion.
Before my oldest son, Garrett, turned 13, I asked him to join me in listening to and discussing Dr. Dobson’s tape series called “Preparing for Adolescence.” This seven-part study covers such issues as emotions, physical changes, sex and self-esteem. We went to the church in the early mornings for our study, then concluded our times with breakfast at a local restaurant. Each session, including breakfast, took approximately two hours. It was a great time of preparing Garrett for this personally significant transition he was about to experience.
Our talks were lively, sometimes explicit (we talked candidly about sex), and relationally bonding for father and son. At the conclusion of our study (which I coordinated with his thirteenth birthday), I prepared a simple ceremony and took Garrett to dinner and let him order any meal on the menu. He chose his favorite: steak.
For an hour, the two of us sat and talked about adolescence and manhood and his growing responsibilities. At this time, I introduced the manhood definition: “A man is someone who rejects passivity, accepts responsibility, leads courageously and expects the greater reward — God’s reward.” I explained these phrases and illustrated each concept in a simple way.
I then asked Garrett to memorize the definition, which he did almost immediately. I told him this would be the “north star” for his manhood and that I planned to refer to it often in the years ahead. We then finished this special ceremonial occasion with my prayer for God’s blessing in his life.
Reinforcing the Lesson
The unexpected surprises from that ceremony came later. Since that time, I’ve been amazed at how many opportunities I’ve had to shape my son’s behavior by referring back to our definition of manhood. This is the beauty of clarifying and defining values.
I remember the time our family went to dinner and Garrett charged inside the restaurant, forgetting to hold the door for his mother and sisters. I stopped him in mid-stride and said, “Hey, what does a real man do in a situation like this?”
Garrett immediately said, “Well, Dad, I guess a real man accepts responsibility for the women he’s with.” Bingo!
“So, instead of charging into the restaurant,” I replied, “act the gentleman and become the door holder.”
Once you’ve defined manhood for your son, small day-to-day experiences such as this become opportunities to reinforce a biblical portrait of manhood.
My wife, Sherard, told me a few months ago about a girl at school who took an interest in Garrett. Another young lady, acting as a mediator for this budding relationship, began calling him on the phone to explore the possibility of a romance with her friend.
Garrett pondered this for awhile. Then one night he took charge and called the interested girl directly. He told her he couldn’t be her boyfriend.
Sherard overheard the conversation (no, she wasn’t listening on the other extension), and when Garrett hung up, she complimented him on the way he had handled the situation. Without hesitation — almost matter-of-factly — Garrett replied, “Mom, a real man must reject passivity and accept responsibility for things like this!”
Nothing warms a father’s heart like progress.
Even our daughters, Elizabeth and Rebekah — both older than Garrett — have benefited from our ongoing discussion. They have heard us refer again and again to the characteristics of an authentic man. Whether they realize it or not, they are subconsciously forming an image of what real men are like.
High School Graduation: The Squire Stage
Upon leaving home for college, a young man discovers a newfound sense of freedom; unless he is well-grounded, he may choose to renounce the values of home.
A second ceremony occurs when a son finishes high school. This, too, is a pivotal time, fraught with potential dangers. Upon leaving home for college, a young man discovers a newfound sense of freedom. And unless he is well-grounded, he may choose to renounce the values of home. Biographer Jay Parini describes John Steinbeck’s first year at Stanford University:
Steinbeck wanted desperately to break free from parental bounds, and by midyear he was refusing to visit his parents every weekend — much to their consternation. He cultivated a sense of himself as a libertine; indeed, he seems to have made a conscious point of straying from the narrow path his parents laid down for him.1
Steinbeck’s first year at college — and all of his subsequent years — was filled with drink, free sex and a host of contemptible behaviors, a course considered more and more the norm for college-age males. Because of this danger, our graduation ceremony gives our sons a vision greater than personal pleasure; we want them to view their time at college (or military service, work, etc.) as a great opportunity to make a mark for Christ, not for self.
All of our sons have now been through our high school graduation ceremony. It has had a profound effect upon each of their lives. The three dads took each of these young men to a nice restaurant (as you’ve discovered, food is a critical component of our ceremonial format!) and celebrated this major passage in their lives over dinner, Then, in a formal way, we talked with each son about a number of issues pertinent to leaving home and continuing his education at college — which they all have. Each father openly shared about his own collegiate successes and failures; we described honestly and in detail the things we did wrong, the things we did right and how these things impacted our lives later on. We also discussed what we would choose to do over if we could, with our wisdom of experience.
It was immediately clear that having a group of dads share like this dramatically increased the power of this moment. We emphasized the importance of beginning strong academically, setting goals and boundaries and resisting the host of temptations that awaited. The son was given the opportunity to ask any questions on any subject. The interaction was often spirited and frank.
Then the three of us brought out a picture of our families’ crest and explained select portions of the imagery to him. For instance, we used the three swords to represent one essential manhood truth from each dad that we wanted him to take along to college.
One of the truths we always communicated to our sons at this juncture was that we will no longer treat them as boys. From now on, our relationship will be more like peers. They are on their way to becoming men now and can be expected to be treated as such.
The discussion usually lasted for two hours or more. Once this part of the evening ended, we returned to one of our homes, where all the other members of the three families had gathered. We then pulled everyone into a circle around the college bound son. Each father talked generously about this young man’s achievements and character, affirming his commitment to Christ. Other family members were invited to make special comments, too. Then everyone laid hands on this young man and prayed for him. Awesome!
“I’ll Never Forget It!”
In describing the impact of this one evening, Bill Wellons, Jr., said things such as “It was incredibly affirming. … It made me feel important. … It was really challenging.”
Ben Parkinson echoes Bill’s statements. By his own admission, Ben has always been skeptical about ceremonies. Ben said that his dad, a big movie buff, “is the kind of guy who will watch the movie Glory and then initiate a three-hour discussion. When I first heard about this knighthood business, I thought to myself, Did Dad see the movie First Knight and get inspired?”
But Ben’s skepticism faded quickly when he personally went through the ceremony described above. He discovered that now, for the first time, he was answerable for his decisions. Dad wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder anymore.
Another powerful effect has been the way Bill, Jr., and Ben view the other two dads. Said Bill, Jr., “After that night, every time I returned home from school, I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Parkinson and Mr. Lewis what I was learning. And every time I saw them, they were quick to ask how things were going.”
Said Ben, “The other two dads became mentors for me. I knew if I had a problem, I could go to them and talk about it.”
Both Bill, Jr., and Ben were awed by the process. That their fathers would take the time to plan the ceremony and share their hearts with them has left a profound mark.
College Graduation: The Knight Stage
It is here that we formally initiate our sons into manhood; youth ends here.
This third ceremony is unique for three important reasons. First, it is here that we formally initiate our sons into manhood. Youth ends here. The ceremony takes an evening — or even a full weekend — of private interaction, when we discuss in depth this new life of independence and the responsibilities that come with it. We spend time defining additional aspects of the family crest, especially the crown and wreath, which depict authentic manhood.
More than ever before, we challenge him to aspire to it, for now is the time. Reject passivity! Accept responsibility! Lead courageously! And again, the son is given the opportunity to ask questions, with robust interaction often taking place.
This ceremony is also unique because of a special gift. At the appropriate time, the young man’s father reaches into his pocket and presents his son with a powerful reminder of this moment. A ring. But not just any ring. A ring of great value.
Applying the first rule of ceremonies (“memorable ceremonies are costly”), we took our family crest to a jeweler and asked him to engrave this image on a gold ring. It cost nearly $1,000, and the three fathers contributed equally toward the expense. Like nothing else we do, this costly gift “spikes” forever in a young man’s mind the importance of the occasion. It is his dubbing as a knight.
The college graduation ceremony was the first milestone marker for Bill Parkinson, Jr., (we developed the process after he had graduated from high school). He was absolutely floored by the experience. He told his dad afterward that the whole evening was a blur and said he didn’t remember half of the things that Bill, Bill and I had said to him. He asked if we could write down the things we had shared, which we did.
During the family meeting at home that night, Bill, Jr., kept looking at his ring, pulling it off his finger and admiring the design. Later, he confided that this ceremony was a major turning point in his life.
For Ben Parkinson, this ceremony was just as profound. He said the ring “became a symbol of manhood and of my commitment to Christ.” As Ben reflected upon that evening, he realized that the reason he was secure in his faith, his values, and in himself was because his parents were committed to these same ideals.
Joining the Round Table
The college graduation ceremony is special for one more reason. Once a son has been through this ceremony, he formally joins the dads as a “fellow knight.” He is now to be included in their round table. For the first time, he becomes an active participant in the other manhood ceremonies with the younger sons as they reach these same milestones.
Once Bill Parkinson, Jr., had completed his ceremony, he was able to be present when his brother Ben went through his manhood initiation. It meant a lot to Ben to see Bill there and to hear him share his growing manhood experiences. Before long our round table grew from three knights to six.
This particular ceremony continued to evolve. Our goal was to make the college graduation ceremony a weekend event instead of an evening. We wanted to get away for at least two days and discuss key manhood concepts that I regularly present in my Men’s Fraternity materials. That, plus some manly activities (hunting, fishing) and leisurely discussions would make our initiation into manhood even more memorable.
Marriage: The Promise/Oath Stage
The important thing is that you do something creative and memorable to initiate your son into manhood.
I remember when Bill, Bill and I finished the last of our four manhood ceremonies with the first of our seven sons. We had already determined that this last ceremony would take place before their weddings.
Bill Parkinson’s son, Ben, had beaten the rest of the boys to the altar, so we planned his ceremony to occur at the conclusion of the rehearsal dinner. This was the only ceremony that went “public,” that is, occurred before someone other than the immediate families.
I am not sure what the hundred or so guests thought of our public ceremony. We did offer a brief explanation of our years together mentoring Ben. Then we three dads stood before a beloved son and rehearsed back to him the commitments he had made to us and to God years earlier in his “becoming a man” ceremony. Ben had not departed his homestead, like Sam Rayburn, with “Be a man!” ringing in his ears. On the contrary, he had left home knowing he was a man! He had been initiated by us into manhood and its responsibilities years before.
As our ceremony continued, we each offered Ben a special word of wisdom for this new “Promise/Oath Stage” of life. Our personal comments — “swords of the masculine spirit,” we call them — were intended to arm him for another campaign of honorable living.
Remember, one of the primary responsibilities of real manhood revolves around “a woman to love.” You may also remember that a knight’s promise — his word of honor — was the most important thing a knight possessed. Knights were the Promise Keepers of the Middle Ages.
A woman to love and one’s word of honor. Both elements are central to this final ceremony that occurs the night before the wedding, at the rehearsal dinner.
In one promise/oath ceremony we conducted, Ben Parkinson was challenged in the ways of married manhood by each of the dads. Then, to “spike” this special moment, he and his bride-to-be received a family crest like the one in each of our homes, for the new home they were creating together as husband and wife.
Two final exhortations concluded this ceremony. First, Ben was exhorted as a knight to keep the vows he would make to Aimee the following day. Second, he was exhorted to keep the vows he had already made to us: the promise of pursuing manhood for a lifetime.
This is what we do. There is nothing sacrosanct about our ceremonies; you may choose to imitate aspects of these or develop your own. But the important thing is that you do something creative and memorable to initiate your son into manhood. Remember, too, that the power of the ceremony is the actual experience! It is the lingering memory it makes and in the potent vision it marks.
Your Son Wants You to Notice Him
Many sons today have a sense of themselves, a premonition that they were created for something significant, if only someone would notice them!
General Ulysses S. Grant, whose victories at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and elsewhere sealed the conflict for the Union, is considered one of the heroes of the War between the States. But Grant’s success is remarkable when you consider his background.
You see, prior to the war, Ulysses S. Grant was a confirmed failure. He had failed as a farmer, a peddler of firewood and as the proprietor of a leather store in Galena, Illinois. At one point, he was so broke that he pawned his gold watch — a family heirloom — for $22.
But deep in his heart, Ulysses S. Grant knew he could succeed. William S. McFeely, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, makes this powerful observation: “[Grant] had, all along, ideas and a [good] sense of himself that he could make no one notice” [italics added].1 No matter how hard Grant tried, no one seemed to sense his potential.
Many sons today are just like Ulysses S. Grant. They have a sense of themselves, a premonition that they were created for something significant, if only someone would notice them!
Someone like a father. With great clarity and regal pronouncement, manhood ceremonies tell a son, “I notice you! You are important to me! You are important to the kingdom of God! You have an important masculine destiny to fulfill!”
You can do it, Dad! Take the time to craft some ceremonies for your son. Make them costly. Make them memorable. Celebrate!
He’ll remember these special occasions with you as some of the finest days of his life.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources to help you with the transition of your son into manhood
Popular questions on this topic:
- My son would spend every waking moment gaming if I let him. How do I broaden his interests?
- Why does my son fail during his most important competitive moments?
- How can parents help the transition from home to dorm life?
- I’m a single mom looking for positive male role models for my kids.
- Raising a Modern-Day Knight (Paperback)
- Got Teens?: Time-Tested Answers for Moms with Teens and Tweens
- Reaching Teens in Their Natural Habitat
- Losing Control & Liking It
- The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships
- Bringing Up Boys
- Dad, If You Only Knew
- King Me
- The 21-Day Dad’s Challenge (Paperback)
- Rites of Passage for Your Daughter
- The Impact of Everyday Interactions
- Develop Emotional Intimacy With Your Kids
- The Legacy You Want to Give
- Defining ‘Successful Parenting’
- Blessing Your Kids