Rites of Passage

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I just got back from the Boys’ Schools conference and that always gives me lots of new topics to share with you all. The theme for the conference this year was Building Boys into Good Men and there were lots of speakers talking about how to do just that.

One of the sessions I attended was from a school in Australia which has a four-week sojourn in the bush for all boys at the grade 9 level. For those of you who are reading this in other countries, some Australian schools have programs where their students leave school and go on an extended program in the bush – what we in in the US or western Europe would call the woods, the wilderness (although this program is not quite that far from civilization), or the country. In the Australian program, the boys learn practical skills in camping out, cooking, hiking, bicycling, climbing, as well as academic classes such as reading and writing. All boys are required to keep a journal of their experience.

At the end of the session, the boys walk back to school, a trek which takes six days, although some of the trip is on a boat because they have to cover areas which are too marshy to walk through. As they return, the whole school is there to welcome them back into the fold, as it were. They are now full-fledged members of the school community.

Why is this sort of experience so important to boys? I’m not sure, but it has something to do with the fact that the male peer group is more important to adolescent boys than are their families or are girls. Even fifty years later, my husband talks of the week that he spent hiking with three friends along the Appalachian Trail in our state. I went to camp and hiked and canoed with friends for days at a time, but it did not have the same impact on me that this trip had on my husband. Boys, particularly young adolescent boys, need to be away from their families. If you want a good example of this, watch the movie Stand By Me, probably the best movie about boys together in the wild that has ever been made.

The presenter of this session pointed out that boys need a rite of passage – they need to be able to point to some event in their lives as when they transitioned from boyhood to young adulthood. Girls have puberty to mark this time, but boys do not have any tangible way to know that they are growing up.

Your son needs a rite of passage. He needs to do something without his parents around, and that something needs to be grown up behavior. Yes, there will be adults around, but he will not be related to any of them. This can be a wilderness program, but it can also be his first real job. My son sang with the American Boychoir and was on stage with the Berlin Symphony in Carnegie Hall at age 12. He was, to all intents and purposes, a professional musician working with other musicians. We did not get the chance to see him at this performance, he did this as a member of the group.

I can hear you now: but my son is too little to go off on his own! If the program exists and he wants to go, you need to let him. He will come back, full of stories and experiences, but most importantly he will know you trust him to look after himself. Camping in the back yard is for little kids, once a boy is 12 or older, he needs to go into the woods. It will be good for both of you.