February 16, 2008

A New, Year-Long, Rite of Passage for Boys

When I speak to groups of men working with boys, whether it's in mentoring organizations, at churches or conferences, or just groups of men who want to do something for adolescent males, there is always the question of what to do with them. Often, the path that question takes is, how do we keep these guys entertained? While I think that's a fair question to ask, and indeed some fun is important, I think if a young male is on the brink of manhood, it misses the mark a little.

I feel that mixed in with some boy fun, there should be serious lessons about manhood and an opportunity to talk with men about the big issues in life. A few mentoring organizations approach that challenge head on, but it seems to me that too many of them leave it to chance. I'd like to propose the creation of a year-long rite of passage initiation, that is relevant to the times. A path that guarantees boys are exposed to some of the important issues and events that will impact and shape their lives.

I'm suggesting a monthly theme or event for boys and men that is followed up with a group meeting to talk about what happened and help the boys process their experience. I'm trying to stir your thinking here. Consider the impact of these kinds of experiences on an adolescent male:
  • A visit to a jail or prison

  • Working for a day on a Habitat for Humanity home build

  • Going to a stockyard where animals are butchered

  • Visiting the local firehouse, learning about the gear, skills, and hearing stories

  • A conversation with residents at a battered women's shelter

  • Visiting a Vet's hospital where they can talk with severely injured veterans

  • Helping out for a few hours at a nursing home serving a meal

  • Job shadowing - go to work with a man

  • Hearing from women recovering from being prostitutes

  • Feeding people at a homeless shelter

  • Spending a weekend night at the police station

  • Playing paint ball... after a discussion from a veteran about shooting at others

  • Hearing a speaker from Alcoholics Anonymous or Debtors Anonymous

You get the idea, and I'm sure you have ideas you could add. Ideally, when processed in a multi-generational group of males, these experiences would drive powerful discussions about life, manhood, profession, relationship to women, and responsibility.

After a year or so of these experiences, some opportunities for fun, and directly and indirectly learning from men across the discussion circle, an adolescent male, I think , would really be ready for some form of crossing into manhood ceremony.

What do you think?

What activities would you add to the list?

How would your life be different today if, as an adolescent, you had been surrounded by good men with the focused intention to teach you about life and the journey toward a positive manhood?

Comment on this post below or send me an email.

Please consider sending this along to a man you feel might be interested. We are all learning how to do this from each other, and we need all the good men we can get.


  1. Tim W.12:30 PM

    Hi Earl: What a fantastic idea! I've forwarded this to my men's group and encouraged them to respond.

    An additional idea that comes to my mind, considering how prominent homophobia is for most boys/men, is some sort of activity that would entail exposure to gay men/lesbians, perhaps visiting (if possible) a local organization for gays/lesbians/transgendered people and have them talk about their lives, discrimination, etc.

    Because I'm involved in non-traditional (gender) career exporation, another possibility might be identifying men working in non-traditional careers and visiting them in their workplace (or job shadowing). I really appreciate you thinking of feminist activities, like visiting a battered women's shelter and recovering prostitutes.

    As I'm writing this, I'm thinking of other ideas: I'm reading a really wonderful book "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life" and another activity might be visiting with older men and asking them "What do you know now about being a successful man/human being that you wished you knew when you were our age(s)?"

    Thanks for your creativity and commitment to young men!

  2. Earl, I love it that you are doing this and it has prompted a response from me.

    When I joined the orchestra everyone had been in the armed forces of some kind. They all had a deep sense of belonging to the country. I have thought for a long time that this type of service (not necessarily military) to the country gives one a sense of belonging. So I would find a way to make service to the country a mandatory requirement for all young people. A year long commitment to the betterment of the larger community so that some sense of personal ownership is achieved.

  3. Wayne Levine12:34 PM


    Right on! I can see it. And I can see men at my Center wanting to be involved in our area. I also applaud the suggestions from the two previous comments.

    One of the things we're working on here is creating an event where we invite fathers and sons in our communities to be mentored by the men of the West Coast Men's Center.

    Maybe a dozen or more men will offer short trainings on some important—and possible some less important but fun—skills that men are proud to master.

    It's a way to give to our community and hopefully a way to encourage more men to engage in this process of being a better man.

    It would be ideal to introduce these new men to the program you're envisioning.


  4. I love all these ideas. When men show up and share what they know and are passionate about everyone wins, but especially boys. ANY group of men represents a rich resource of talent, interests, and passions. The trick is to get the men and boys together!

    Onward brothers... Earl

  5. Climb a mountain
    Night hiking and day hiking

    The above done in the presence of a man or men who is knowledgeable about the natural world in a way that informs wonder, awe and reverence.

    Thank you Earl for the gift you bring me, my brothers and boys.

  6. Earl,

    Many of the actions you’ve suggested describe what happens (negatively) when a person doesn't do the "right things". I'd like to suggest some actions that show boys the "upside lessons"- what "good things" can happen when men (and boys) do the "right things.”

    How about a meeting to introduce boys to some of the volunteer work individual men and groups are doing? Men who have or are giving unselfishly of their time in service to good causes, like sports team coaches, church volunteers, people that serve as court appointed guardians of children, or even just ring the bell for Salvation Army donations?

    Last night, in my volunteer action with a group of boys and prior to the meeting getting started, I spoke to the kids about a guy who has come to present six professional magic shows to our group over the years and has never charged a penny. I held him up as a great model of an unselfish man in service to the world. It was a great discussion because they knew him.

    When the other men arrived, we did a session on astronomy. We used a little star projector to create a mini-planetarium, and each kid got his own star chart. It went very, very well.

    On the way out I asked one of the more "participative" kids what they might like to do next time and he suggested reading and discussing some Greek mythology. Floored me. Guess what we'll be doing next time?

  7. Steve2:24 PM

    Just returned from a trip to Australia. A scarf my wife purchased there - mentions that the scarf's symbols were used in boys' passage to manhood rites... The ideas you have brought here are very powerful, provocative, powerful, and necessary.

    My notions/feelings about my growth as a man and human are that, I have to continue to work to develop myself as a man, and continue to walk that path. Knowing the path, and walking the path, are two completely different things.

    This monthly theme for me is doing an event that allows a boy/man to take a look at the underbelly of life. I believe that will create boys/men who are both tough and tender. It give us males a chance to walk the path.

    I am sending your email suggestion to men I know who have sons and who may integrate this into their lives. Thanks again for your sharing and caring and love.

  8. Hey Earl, I like the idea. It's great stuff - looks like you're about to put together a great service for these boys and the world.

    I like the element of service in your program. I would add a dimension of making it something ongoing - for example, the boys choose between spending time in a nursing home and a homeless shelter and some other choices, making it a year-long commitment. That has a few benefits: they get trained in being of service/devoting themselves to the greater good; they get to do a service they are passionate about; they develop a sense of competence around giving, which will reinforce their sense of service as well as their sense of power.

    In general I assume you're looking to instill in the boys a sense of authentic, self-sufficient masculinity, the kind where the boy has a sense of mastery of himself as a growing male with tons of potential and the responsibility that comes with that potential. From a positive psychology point of view (I'm a shrink and life coach by training), it will have more of a profound effect on the boys if you give them opportunities to develop their sense of authentic masculinity rather than scaring them away from inauthentic masculinity (i.e. that found in men who exploit their power to take advantage of others). So if you take them to a prison or battered women's shelter, I think it would be important to present it in two steps: 1. this is what not to do, and 2. explore what would be positive ways to deal with natural desire for freedom, money, sex, etc.

    In developing their sense of authentic masculinity, some activities I would add to your awesome list (I particularly like the idea of shadowing a man at work):

    - Team-development games such as a ropes course

    - Having a solid, impressive woman talk to them about relating to women (with their mentors supporting this woman in the circle, so that the boys don't get too cynical)

    - A trip out to the wilderness with their mentor for a night or 48 hours or so, where they have to survive on the environment (build shelter, pick non-poisonous berries, filter water from a stream, etc) - the mentor teaches the boy how to survive and makes sure he does, but stays hands-off as much as possible.

    I signed up for the blog - I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops!

    In brotherhood from Jerusalem


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