Rituals for a 5-Year-Old

(This was originally posted on Niki’s personal site, My Own Ashram.)

Last week my son had his 5 Year Old Rituals. What does that mean? Let’s start at the beginning.

My son was born prematurely and spent the first month of his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). It was easily the worst month of my life. Son, B, was born healthy and strong, though very, very small. He has grown to inherit both his mother’s and his father’s emotional intensity, so while he’s a bright, healthy, empathetic little guy, he’s also combative, struggles especially much with impulse control, and wants all the attention all the time. (Some of this is typical to the age, some is very clearly inherited personality.)

Me and my son, 24 hours old. He's less than 5 lbs.
Me and my son, 24 hours old. He’s less than 5 lbs.

Adam and I have wondered if some of the emotional intensity of our son is due to his month in the NICU. Surely, infants have no memory of such things? He was cared for, relatively healthy, and I was with him nearly 24/7. Two years ago our suspicions were confirmed. Sitting around the table in Wales, eating breakfast one morning, Adam and I were discussing when we would move. B was just shy of 3 1/2 years old. “Don’t leave me!” he said. “Of course we wouldn’t leave you,” we responded. “Don’t leave me like you did in the hospital,” he said. Now, B knows he spent a month in the hospital, but we’ve never given him the details. What he said next blew my mind. “You left me in the hospital and I was lonely. I tried to take my stickers off, but the doctors wouldn’t let me.” And here he touched the exact places on his torso where the monitors had been attached. He had indeed tried to rip them off repeatedly. He successfully managed to rip out his feeding tube two or three times in the first weeks as well. Besides showing me that even pre-term infants have the capacity for feelings and memory, this confirmed that his early experience was exacerbating the intensity of his emotions.

Fast forward to this summer.

At the Gathering I attended in Canada in May I had the pleasure of meeting a family raising their kids in their tradition (I think it was a branch of Wicca). Their eldest child, a male, had recently undergone his Coming of Age Ritual. I asked many questions, heard the story, their reasoning, and I witnessed how self-possessed their 14-year-old son was. I was really moved. Something else they told me was that they had been building up to it over years. It hadn’t come out of the blue, but had a context. Coming of age meant something specific for their family and also for the community they circled with.

My husband and I have talked off and on over the years about the lack of rituals in our Western world. We have them, but we don’t call them out as rituals, of course. Adam and I would like to have Coming of Age Rituals for our kids, but that context starts long before 12 or 14 or whenever they’re ready. So we decided to start at 5.

When I was pregnant with my son, we were living in California and the state had a big advertising campaign for healthy kids; 0-5 years were the ages covered. How could all of those ages be lumped together? I was confused. How is an infant and a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old similar? Now that I’ve got my own kids I see just how appropriate that grouping is. Only recently has my son left all the traces of babyhood behind. The leaps of emotional, intellectual, and physical development that occur through out these years are huge and consistent. And at five kids in the United State start kindergarten. Five felt like the right age to start rituals.

Over the course of the summer we’ve been talking about B’s ‘Five Year Old Rituals.’ He seemed excited. He couldn’t wait! Adam and I have been planning out what to do, what might have meaning for him, etc. We wanted an element of surprise. We wanted to incorporate a few aspects of ritual as Adam and I experience them. We wanted to bring in some of our spirit allies. We wanted a few tasks that would mark the end of an era and the beginning of something new, using the strengths that B has. And we would celebrate!

Last week he finally had them! And it was NOT what we expected.

After putting both kids to sleep, we woke B up and had him get dressed again. He had only been asleep for 10 minutes, but he sleeps deeply and did not want to wake up. We told him there were cupcakes waiting for him at the end of the ritual – that did the trick! While I set up a few things outside, he had to help Adam build a fire in the fire pit. He carried the wood and learned to light matches. He was awake and happy at this point. We sat on the ground and did a little grounding meditation. I said the Holy Mother prayer and called to Ganesh and our Ancestors for guidance.

Fire, made by my son and Adam
Fire, made by my son and Adam

At this point B was sitting on the ground with his hands over his ears. He didn’t want any of the prayers. I brought out some special spirit food incense and he was more than willing to help sprinkle it into the fire.

Then everything devolved into a nasty mess of name calling, tears, and yelling.

The backyard was dark, except for the fire in the pit. B ran around the backyard telling us our fire was an ‘idiot fire’ and it was weak because it wasn’t burning up to space. He was angry and crying. Adam and I were a little stunned. Hadn’t he been looking forward to this? We had to reinvent our three tasks and rethink the ritual.

For the first task we had planned to recreate a womb with our bodies and have him push out. Like the armchair psychologists we are, we hoped that maybe this would give him some sense of closure and empowerment around his birth story. In the end we didn’t do this, but there was some physical struggle, since he came up and starting trying to tip me out of my chair, hitting me and trying to throw a brick at me. So we held him tight and he screamed and pushed us away.

His next task was to jump the fire. While I held B and tried to get him to stop yelling (it was 10 at night, midweek, and the neighbors were trying to sleep), Adam started jumping over the fire. This got B’s attention. We told him his task was to jump the fire. He didn’t believe he could do it. We told him we’d help him and explained that it was ok to be scared. Finally we were able to convince him to try. We held his arms as he ran and when he jumped, we lifted him up over the fire. This scared the crap out of him and he started crying some more.

At this point we decided to move inside, so as not to wake the neighbors. I carried things downstairs to Adam’s office and altar. Adam and B put the fire out. Once downstairs we sat and grounded again and then asked B to tell us his story so far. He’s very articulate, with a great memory, but he wanted our help. We coaxed him and he told us the events of his life that he remembered.

Finally I anointed him with water from the jug in which I have water blessed for Kali. He wiped that off immediately. We said we were proud of him, that he was no longer a baby, but now a boy. We gifted him with his own statue of Ganesha, and with a little incense holder and incense matches. He giggled with delight at the statue, hugging it and crying out, “My very own Ganesh!” We finished with tiny cupcakes. Exhausted, we all tidied up and got ready for bed.

New Ganesh murti
New Ganesh murti

Was this a traumatic experience for him? I wondered if this might only make things worse. What a confusing and far more upsetting experience than we had expected or hoped for. Did we do the wrong thing in thinking this was appropriate? Tucking him into bed that night, he said he wanted me to sleep with him, that he didn’t want to be a boy but to stay a baby. Then he rolled over and fell asleep.

What was fascinating is that the next day he woke up and proudly told his sister that he had had his Five Year Old Rituals. We went out for a celebratory lunch altogether. Two kids, aged about 5 and 7, were sitting next to us. B said they’d probably had their Rituals too. His grandparents came over unexpectedly that afternoon and he proudly told them about his Rituals.

B practices lighting incense
B practices lighting incense

Later Adam told me that B had apologized in the morning for calling us names, saying that he was scared and he had wanted to shut down the things that were scaring him (the ritual), but he didn’t know how so he called us names.

In the end, this was a very different experience than either Adam or I expected. We learned a lot about our son. We learned that ritual with children is never going to go as we plan it. But it also served its purpose. Our son feels like he did something Significant and he feels proud of himself. Those are great things to hold in his heart as he heads off to kindergarten in two weeks time.

About Niki Whiting
  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I’m really interested in the way your son seemed to hate the ritual at the time, but then so valued it afterward. It makes me think that the current parental trend to protect children from all unpleasantness or conflict is more damaging than I thought — not just preventing them from becoming resilient, but actually depriving them of meaningful experiences.

    • http://myownashram.com Niki Whiting

      It was hard to see him so upset, but he knew the rituals were coming, he knew he was safe (even if he felt unsafe), and Adam and I knew he was safe and that we were not asking him anything that he could not do. I was reminded of my master’s defense: my adviser said she’d never let me get there if I wasn’t ready, even if I felt like I didn’t know a single thing! We wouldn’t have set him up for failure – but failure was his to choose, you know? And then in the morning hearing the pride he had… it was moving. I think of difficult and challenging experiences I’ve faced in my life and there’s a difference between the ones where I came out feeling stronger and wiser and prouder, and the ones where I exited feeling demoralized. Knowing I’m supported and have the skills for the challenge is part of that difference.

      It’ll be interesting to see what his coming of age rituals as a teenager will be like. Thank goodness I’ve got a few years before those!

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      The post also has me thinking about the way some Pagan traditions are taking the ordeal elements out of their initiations of adults because they might be “triggering.” I’m not inclined to argue for any *particular* ordeal being necessary, but an experience of ordeal is necessary for the ritual to produce the psychological transformation required. It also makes me think that groups are trying to initiate people while they are far, far too early in their healing and growth processes to best benefit from the experience.

      I’m concerned with the way our culture seems to be increasingly suspicious of teaching techniques that create challenging experiences under controlled conditions. Those experiences are meant to be test-drives for the unpredictability and challenge of real life. No wonder college residence directors have coined an entire term for fragile freshmen students who immediately collapse under normal college pressures (“teacups”).

      • myownashram

        I’ve been loving your comments. (I only just remembered to hook up my disqus account, yikes.)

        I agree with you completely. Ordeals – appropriately considered ordeals – are vital for certain rituals. I think back to many of the challenges of my own life, B’s birth being one of them, and those ordeals made me stronger and more compassionate.

        I’ve received some criticism that B wasn’t prepared for this ritual. I also think I need to rename this a Rite of Passage, because that’s what it was! I plan to write a post following up yet again on this topic.

  • xxdemosthenesxx

    Thank you for sharing this! I have found my 5.5 year old is now more interested in doing ‘pears’ which is his way of pronouncing my daily prayers/rituals. He soemtimes likes to sit quietly or ask questions and that’s okay :) Right now he likes to help in making offerings to the Faeries and our home shrines to the Tuatha de Danaan. Overall the most important thing is just showing them what this is and also being open to a lot of things not going the way you planned. Loose planning is good and I also found that teaching about the Gods while at the park or even doing crafts is a good trick.

    • myownashram

      My husband and I follow our kids’ lead quite a lot. They let us know what they’re ready for and where their interests lie. We neither demand that they walk our path, nor do we keep it from them. Weaving in our spirituality to our everyday lives is important for showing that our traditions are living ones, not dusty ones to be taken off the shelf for occasional use!

  • http://www.alwayssababa.com/ lishevita

    This sounds like a powerful ritual for him AND for you. You and Adam were focusing on what this ritual meant to B, but have you had the chance to process how his changing times are meaningful to you? His ritual had ALL the elements in it!

    Birth can be this uncomfortable struggle, and you’d hoped to heal his birth trauma through reenactment, but instead he healed his trauma by facing this really scary thing, completely losing it, and then realizing the next morning that the breakdown was not necessary. How many times do we go through experiences like that as adults? (Or maybe it’s just me. I have had SO many of those experiences!)

    On the flip side, you also had huge trauma around his birth. He was so fragile and you couldn’t just snap your fingers and make it all better. The birth didn’t go as planned. You couldn’t be there for him every moment, and you couldn’t hold him the way you wanted to. His ritual went awry, but really this time you all had the chance to take back some of the power that you’d lost in the birth and early days. B got to use his words, lash out, get the attention that he’d felt he wasn’t getting in the hospital in those moments when you weren’t there. You got to find a way to help him through all that, meet him in his moment of terror, and improvise a way through the rituals. It was a kind of marathon, maybe, but you didn’t give up, and you all made it to the finish line and the cupcakes.

    That is such an awesome and empowering story. I just want to hug all three of you! Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

    • http://myownashram.com Niki Whiting

      It was incredibly powerful for us as parents! I’m curious to see how the rituals will go when our daughter is 5. It’ll be a whole different game with her, I’m sure!

    • myownashram

      His birth was traumatic for me. We made the best of that, with support. I think the ritual too was a mirror in some ways of his birth – and that was sort of the point! It was a low key ritual in a lot of ways. Thank you for your support!

  • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

    I read this several days ago, and wasn’t quite sure what to comment on it, so I didn’t. But it’s really stayed with me during the week. Perhaps partly because I was 6 weeks premature myself. I’ve never considered before the possibility that I may have retained a memory of the two weeks I spent in the hospital incubator.

    Reading this has primarily made me think about how brave parents have to be. I’m not a parent, and I don’t plan to be for some time yet. I am, to be honest, quite intimidated by the whole thing – by the thought that I could get something completely wrong, or make the wrong decision.

    I admire your tenacity in continuing with the ritual despite your son’s unexpected reaction to it. As the others have touched on, conflict like this is an integral part of life, and I can understand how this ritual seemed very positive to him in hindsight, considering how powerful it was to him at the time.

    • myownashram

      Parenting is a process of learning as you go. There is no perfection and you are guaranteed to make some wrong decisions! Don’t let that fear stop you!