Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Ritual for Coming Into Childhood

No Longer a Baby, Not Yet a Teen:
A Ritual for Coming Into Childhood © 1993 by Anne Hill

As a preschooler, Bowen was not a demonstrative boy. Where other kids his
age liked to hug or kiss their parents, Bowen preferred a high five or a
wrestling match. Least liked of all his toys were his stuffed animals, with
the older ones (the ones I was most sentimentally attached to) getting the
least attention. He never slept with his teddy bear, Nicholas, so eventually
I rescued him from his dusty home under Bowen's bed and placed him on a high

When he entered kindergarten, the first curriculum unit they did in his
class was on teddy bears. All the children were encouraged to bring their
teddys to school, share them, draw pictures of them, and keep them in the
class for a couple weeks. Bowen, predictably, would have none of this. When
I asked if he wanted to bring Nicholas to school, he shook his head in
disgust, saying, "There's extras in my class that I can use; the teacher
said I didn't have to bring one if I didn't want to."

About a week later, as I left his bedroom with the lights out for the night,
a thin wail came from his bunk, more upset than I'd heard for a long time. I
went back into find out what was the matter. "Mama, I can't find Nicholas
anywhere and I really miss him and I haven't seen him for THREE YEARS!" He
was close to tears, so I reached up onto the shelf and handed him his
long-lost teddy. He hugged that bear tight and fell asleep, comforted. He
has slept with Nicholas every night since. This change in Bowen, learning to
give and receive affection freely, learning that it was okay as a boy to
take comfort in the things of his babyhood, was one of the first which
marked his transition from insecure toddler and preschooler to self-
confident kid. It came just a month after his fifth birthday, and was
followed in the next few weeks by many more profound leaps in growth: he
wanted to walk to a friend's house by himself, he welcomed the bus rides to
and from school, and he asked for chores to do so that he could earn money.
He suddenly wanted to know about the earth, the stars, gods and goddesses,
where heaven was; in short, he needed to know about his place in the world,
not just his place in our family.

Talking with a friend from Senegal, I learned that in his country it is
common to have a ceremony for children at age six, welcoming them as members
of the village and imbuing them with new responsibilities. For weeks
beforehand, children are taught the customs and stories of their people,
schooled in the proper ways to address their elders, then finally accepted
through ritual as children of the people. We heard similar stories from
other parts of the world, all slightly different, but the main idea was
always that of instruction and initiation.

It seemed to Ross and I that this process of sacralizing our life changes,
starting at young ages, could profoundly alter our lives, and might be the
most important ingredient in a healthy sense of self-esteem. As parents, we
felt the need to rise to the occasion and create a meaningful ritual for our
son as he grew and changed.

Our challenge in formalizing Bowen's passage into childhood was in finding a
balance between education and celebration. With his new wide-open curiosity,
how much information about the world he is inheriting did he need, and of
what sort? How much responsibility should we give him for taking care of his
physical needs? Respecting ones' elders is a worthy goal, but in a society
where obedience can be twisted into children keeping silence about abuse,
what made sense? We also wanted to open up the issue of personal power to
him, since he was already being exposed to cartoon violence and fighting on
the playground, both examples of power by domination. But was it possible
for a five year old boy to differentiate between wielding power over others
and feeling his own inner power? How could we encourage positive growth
without putting down some of his current choices? We began by exploring an
area of mutual interest: creation myths, heroic legends, and stories of
everyday life from as many different cultures as we could find. By reading
to him and discussing the stories afterward, we were able to show Bowen some
of the different ways that children grow up, and the many ways there are to
live on the Earth. This seemed to us a vital
Education, if we wanted him to learn respect for other people and cultures.

We also gave Bowen a lot of support for the changes he was already making
When he insisted on walking by himself to his friend's house, we pointed
outthat as a four-year-old, he had never wanted to do that. He responded by
telling us that five-year-olds were braver than four-year- olds. When he
came home from school on the bus, I pointed out to him all the things he had
successfully remembered:boarding the right bus, bringing lunch box, papers,
and jacket home with him, getting off at the right stop with all of his
things. He said it was easy for him, now that he was five.

One responsibility we gave Bowen was to learn and practice certain social
behaviors. At my parent's house, for example, dinner manners are very
important, so during relaxed dinners at our house, I would often casually
remind him of the difference between how we were eating as opposed to how we
would eat at "Biba's" house. I practiced with both our children, and they
came to see observing manners as a way of respecting other people's customs,
not merely as a behavior or discipline issue. I told my mother that Bowen
was practicing his "manners" for dinner at her house, and she was delighted
at his effort, and made it a point to compliment him every time we sat down
to dinner at her table. A traditional tantrum point had become a positive
experience, because we framed it in terms of Bowen's passage into childhood.

Developing chores for him to do was a bit trickier. We knew what he was
capable of: he could sweep off the porch with a child-sized broom, pull
weeds with me in the garden, and help Ross with his projects. But when we
gave him these chores he immediately said he couldn't do them. Instead of
forcing the issue, we asked for his ideas on chores he could do. He
suggested that he clean out Ross' electric shaver -- something he did all
the time out of curiosity -- and put it back together afterwards. This
sounded fair to us. We were most concerned that his chores be enjoyable and
challenging, so that boundaries between work and play became less than clear
Over time, more ideas for chores emerged.

We talked a lot about power. Power from within, the kind you feel when you
are doing something that makes you feel good. And power over others, the
kind that most cartoon characters rely on exclusively. He took a couple
karate classes with a teacher who emphasized that fighting was not the way
to solve problems, only a way to defend yourself when all other options were
played out. We let him watch Saturday cartoons, but talked to him about what
kinds of power his heroes used, and why. I learned that he wasn't the
non-discriminating sponge

I feared he might be, and that in fact he approached his cartoon watching
time with a much broader sense of reality than I remembered having at his
age. Through this process, I realized that Bowen's ceremony should be a
joyful one, celebrating all the strength and inner resources that our son
had gained throughhis first five years.

We decided to make him a "power necklace," as a reminder of all he had
learned of his own power from the cultures and situations we had studied.
This necklace, as it turned out, was a major focus of his Rite of Passage
ritual. Looking back, I think the key to our success with the ritual was our
discussions with Bowen beforehand. This verbal preparation closely
paralleled what I had learned about the process in other cultures, and it
created a sense of pride and self-confidence for Bowen. In this way our
ceremony became a culmination or fruition of growth, not an introduction to
how life would be after the ritual.

In the early stages of ritual planning, I contacted a close friend whose son
Corey is about the same age as Bowen. Jane and I had been housemates until
our boys were a year old, and through frequent visits the boys had remained
very close. I hoped that their shared experience in the ritual would
reinforce each boy's sense of accomplishment and friendship. There was also
the Mother's Axiom for a Successful Event to consider: If you're having one
child there, you may as well have two.

I wanted to include several good friends in the celebration, some of whom
lived too far away to come. I called those who had been close to us, or to
the boys, including midwives, birth attendants, old housemates, and
long-time friends. I told them what was being planned, and I asked them to
find a special bead, rock, talisman, or other item with a hole for stringing
so we could construct special necklaces for the boys. Everyone was invited
to the ritual, but we told them it would be a rather small gathering and
probably on the short side, given the attention spans of five-year-olds. As
it turned out, nine people were able to come, and I collected beads and
charms from many others. These beads were meant to convey a sense of
protection to the boys, so that when they wore their necklaces they would be
reminded of all those people who loved them and sent them good wishes. One
friend who makes beads designed a bright B and a C bead so the boys could
tell their necklaces apart. In the end, each boy's necklace had items from a
dozen different countries and cultures.

The evening of the ritual, a friend took all the beads we'd collected, and
the cords and clasps, and strung together two vibrant "power necklaces" for
Bowen and Corey.We hid each necklace in a different spot in the living room
for later that evening. Shortly after dinner, we told the boys to play in
the bedroom while we prepared the space. Using candles at the compass points
in the room, and a quick invocation of the ancestors of Bowen and Corey, we
created ritual space. Everyone sat on the floor, partly because our living
room is very small, and partly to be on the same level as the boys. When we
brought them in, it was just a short hop from the door into the middle of
the circle. Given different circumstances, I might have made a procession
out of the event, but once inside the circle, they felt the change.

We told them this was a time when we celebrated them turning from babies
into kids, and that in honor of this big change we would be giving them
gifts. Then I brought out crayon-like body paints, and one after the other
we all drew pictures or symbols on the boy's bodies, giving them the
strength of a tree in their spine, for example, or the speed of lightning in
their legs. One friend who had grown up around many exotic animals drew an
elaborate animal picture on each boy's chest representing that boy's
inherent gifts. The boys weren't the only ones who loved being drawn on. Our
three-year-old daughter celebrated herself at the same time by coloring each
of her feet different colors. The mood of our circle alternated between
solemnity and zaniness, a spontaneous fusion of instruction and celebration.

After the body painting was done, we told Bo and Corey that many people in
the world cared about them, and prayed for them, and worked to protect them
from harm as they grew. As proof of this, we had for each of them a necklace
of protection and power from their friends, hidden somewhere in the room. We
played the hot/cold finding game, as first one then the other circled the
room in search of his necklace. When both boys had found their necklaces and
put them on, we all stood in a circle around them and sang a couple songs
while they danced around as much as they wanted to. Then we sat down again,
and shared a bottle of juice and a plate of cookies, as the boys fingered
the beads on their necklaces and we told them where each had come from.

When the children became fidgety and it was clear the evening was over, we
opened the circle, snuffed out the candles, and put the children to bed. The
grown-ups then had some time to sit and talk about what we had created. All
of us felt positive about the ritual, and had seen how enthusiastically
Bowen and Corey had responded to it. For many nights afterward, both boys
went to bed with their power necklaces on, and have since suggested wearing
them on special occasions.

As I write this, Ross and I are watching our daughter turn that same corner,
approaching her fifth birthday. I am looking forward to the day we begin to
create a ritual for her, and already I have been musing on the differences
in development between girls and boys, between her and her brother. Power
means different things to Lyra than it did for Bowen, and while she has her
own challenges, she has also learned a lot from watching him struggle. We
will have to guide her passage accordingly. For other families whoare
interested in taking on this ceremonial project for their own young children
I have a few planning suggestions:

* Make the ritual as brief as possible while still incorporating the most
important element. Take into consideration your child's unique temperment
and attention span. Our decision to cast a circle before welcoming the boys
in was an important nod to brevity.

* Keep it as hands-on as possible. I highly recommend body paint, if it can
be done with a minimum of fuss, but other possibilities include drawing the
child's outline on butcher paper, then helping to color it in, or creating a
painted t-shirt, cape, or other item, the intent being to celebrate the
child's accumulated abilities and latent gift.

* Avoid the impulse to Say What It All Means. It may mean something
different to you than to your child; finally, his or her version is the one
that is the most important, and that too will change with time. Don't be
discouraged if they seem to reject the attention or the ceremony, just give
them time and space to process it on their own. The time for lots of
discussion is in the weeks or days before the ritual, and possibly

* The age of five is simply a guideline for when this ceremony may be
performed. Children vary widely in their development, and I would not
hesitate to initiate a six year old, or even a seven- year-old, if the child
seemed ready at that time. Pay attention to your child's signs, and trust
that the time will come.

* Think about what balance of freedom and responsibility is right for your
child, as you prepare for the ritual. It is for each family to welcome their
children in a way they feel is appropriate, but when in doubt, it is best to
err on the side of compassion. Our children are vulnerable in their new
strengths and need support in whatever ways we can give it.

Bowen is now almost seven, and our discussions of "inner power" are bearing
fruit. Many times he has remarked that it is a lot harder to think of ways
to stop fights than it is to have it out. Though he does fight occasionally,
I think he sees his actions in a context that other boys don't. Recently he
told me that he fights when he has to, "but there are other kids who fight
all the time. They can't resist it," he said, "because they don't have any
inner strength."

Anne Hill (30) is a writer, musician, and sometimes a pre-school and
elementary school teacher. She lives in Sebastopol, CA, with her husband
Ross Mendenhall (33), and their children Bowen (6-1/2) and Lyra (4-1/2).
They are expecting their third child this Winter Solstice.

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