Last week I wrote about the coming of age ritual my husband and I did for our five-year old son. That single post has received significant attention: repostings, comments, and discussion. More people may have seen that post than any other I’ve written and there are a few things I want to follow-up on.
In retrospect, the title is unclear. I would prefer to re-title it “Rites of Passage for a 5-year-old.” The event was not just a ‘regular’ ritual, it was specifically a rite of passage. ‘5 year old rituals’ makes it sound like it took five years to perform this ritual! Re-framing the ritual as rite of passage may have helped alleviated some of the criticisms my family received.
While most of the comments and discussion around my post were positive and supportive, we did receive some criticism. The most common response was that we scared our son and he wasn’t ready for such a ritual. It is to that criticism that I want to respond.
First, I am grateful for the critique! No one was rude, though a few voices came close. By blogging I aim to be part of a wider discussion, and disagreement is part of discussion. The naysayers are right in one respect: we did scare our son. But he gets scared regularly. He likes to read stories that push him to the edge (Homer’s Odyssey, for example) or try new physical feats, like balancing on a ledge four feet off the ground. Fear is a part of our lives, and facing our fears, especially in a safe context is an important part of developing confidence, resilience, and pride.
We, collectively and individually, need containers for our fears. We did not design our rite to provoke fear in our son; all the activities were things he’d done in the past. That fear came up was was unsurprising and we had space for that. Do the people who think that we deliberately frightened our child think that fear is never ok? Do they not let their kids try something scary for the first time? How can children handle the unpredictable, often scary world if they don’t know that they have tools and resources to face their fears?
Isn’t that like many meaningful rites of passages? I immediately think of birth. American society doesn’t treat it much like a rite of passage, but it is. It is scary, unknown, and uncertain, even the second or third time! It requires mental, emotional and physical endurance and resilience. Most people involved come through with some degree of increased pride and strength – and despite the fear, pain, and struggle of birth, many women go on to do it again.
One woman on Facebook said, “A rite of passage should not make a child cry in fear.”
My husband, Adam, replied, “… I don’t believe that a children’s ritual ought to be designed to frighten a child, but if a child’s fear arises in the midst of ritual it should be dealt with then and there. To me, stopping the ritual simply because of fear is empowering the fear, not the initiate…” I agree with him.
I’m not a fan of the kind of thinking that gives everyone a trophy for participation. However, I think creating spaces for kids (and people of any age) to push themselves and challenge what they think they are capable of is important for developing character, and the virtues of strength, pride, resiliency, and even compassion. The aim is to push the participant toward their best, even if the participant is five.
While our son lashed out to a surprisingly intense degree, we expected some of this. We have an intense son! He loves fiercely, he rages fiercely, he cuddles fiercely, etc. It was no surprise that his fear is expressed fiercely too. Adam and I knew that we’d need to roll with the reality of the situation, and we did.
Another criticism was that involving fire, specifically, was too scary. That may be. But jumping a fire is nothing our son hadn’t done before! Our son has since said he was afraid his feet would catch fire. I asked him if he truly thought his mama and papa would let that happen. No, he said. In that same conversation he was smiling proudly and said he was excited for his next set of rituals, whenever those would be.
My son is clearly working out what that ritual meant. He’s told us he was scared and in the same breath expressed pride. It is now a touchstone. When he is feeling nervous about something we remind him that he’s a boy who’s had his 5-year-old rituals, and I wish you could see his beaming face when we remind him of that!
For example, our local grocery store recently changed its name. “How is it pronounced?” he wanted to know. I wasn’t sure and I suggested he ask an employee.
“No Mama, you do it,” he said. I whispered to him, “Hey, you’re brave, you’ve had your rituals!” He beamed, “Oh yeah!” Then he walked over to the employee. I heard him say, “Excuse me”, and ask his question.
Somehow that touchstone reminds him that he can face his fears, little or big. So while he might still talk about how the ritual was scary, it has brought him pride and strength lasting weeks after the ritual.
My five-year old freaked out, it’s true. But he freaked out in the loving, safe company of the two people who love him most in the world. We asked nothing of him that he wasn’t capable of. Next time he faces the unknown he’ll have this experience to look back to, and hopefully next time, he’ll freak out less. And there will be a next time. He’s even looking forward to it.