Maybe you can think of markers in your life; things that don’t change, which you can come back to with certainty no matter what else is going on in your life. Maybe these are places you like to visit regularly, or the particular way your family celebrates birthdays. No matter what it is, I think significant markers rarely happen by accident, they are laid down intentionally. My children are currently 4 and 6 and we’ve said we’re going to do ‘something special’ when they turn 10, so I’m looking into what others have done and how best to set this up to be the most meaningful. I’ve set out to find out what others have done to inform my planning for what we will do. I hope my thoughts are helpful to you as well!
Why do rites of passage?
To put it simply, rites of passage are a way to mark, celebrate and aid significant life transitions. They become things children eagerly look forward to (so don’t try starting with one child and think you might not do it with the others!) and which are remembered and referred back to as life goes on.
Marking significant transitions in life is something most ancient cultures do better than us. We have things like ‘go and get drunk’ or ‘spend £200 on a dress and have your hair done and go out with your friends in a stretch limo’. The Church has a few rites of passage, such as baptism and first communion, although the less traditional your church is, the less likely you are to have formal markers. The great news is that we don’t need to be limited to what already happens. We can be intentional and create something in our families. It can be as simple or complex as we choose, but it should focus on celebrating, preparing for change and forming an anchor point in our children’s lives.
You may have read Jenny Baker’s chapter on milestones and crossroads in the life of a child in Faithfull Generation (get your free copy at faithfullgeneration. com), where she describes what they did with their sons. I remember hearing her speak on this before my children were born and thinking: "That is so cool. We have to do something like that."
What should we do?
What I’ve discovered is that this is truly personal to each child and family. Jenny Baker talked about sending one of her sons on an independent train journey, during which he was met by his godparent. Another friend, Vanessa, said all their celebrations involved food. She even spoke of taking her 2-year-old son out to an ice cream café to celebrate him coming out of nappies! That’s something I can get a handle on!
I chatted with Tammy Tolman, writer, speaker and pastor, who organised a massive adventure for her son to go walking in the Blue Mountains. There he was met by significant men in his life, who each shared with him something of their life as well as something they saw in him. She’s into journaling, so each of her children has a journal she’s been keeping about them since they were born. They also have a time capsule, including letters from people who were there when they were really little, which they open when they turn 18. I can’t imagine being able
to locate a journal I started six years ago, let alone a time capsule! For our family, taking photos and making a photo book would be much more up our street. One key, I think, is to keep our markers in line with the way our family works, making just a bit more of something we already do.
Something I think could be used by lots of families is the concept of ‘this is what I see in you’. This could take a written or spoken form, on film or face-to-face, from parents or other significant adults. This would be a fantastic way of speaking into a child or young person’s life at significant moments to affirm who they are and who they are becoming. I think most families could create a their-family-specific way to collect, record and present this precious message.
One family I know took the opportunity to go abroad with their children for a one-to-one weekend in Paris before they went to secondary school. Others for whom this wasn’t financially an option kept it as an overnight in the UK. I don’t think the cost should be prohibitive, as the important part everyone reported was the time spent together, and the connection they made with each other.
Jenny Baker’s descriptions were of fun days with significant adults, where they also had a chance to intentionally chat about moving from one era in their child’s life to another. In one experience she described, her husband took her 10-year-old son on a massive drop ride. Beforehand, they had chatted and written down some of the things the child wanted to ‘drop’ or leave behind as he moved from one decade into the next. At the top of the ‘drop’ he let go of this list as a symbol of leaving those things behind. Jenny also mentioned that, as a mother, she found the rituals helpful in letting go.
When should we do it?
There are no rules here, but it’s good to look for transitions, places marked by an increased level of independence, self-determination and responsibility, perhaps a time that isn’t celebrated in our culture or is done in such a way that we feel uncomfortable with for whatever reason. These may be moving from single to double digits (age 9 to 10), moving from primary to secondary school, turning 13 (becoming a teenager!), 16 or 18. Each of these are potential points to mark. One family I spoke to did one, and others did more. Most of those who did more than one had various things that happened at each moment:
reading part of a journal or eating cake (one family I heard about made caterpillar cakes for their children’s 13th birthday and a butterfly when they turned 18).
Who should do it?
Most of the families seem to have focused on the parent of the same sex taking the lead in special days together. Some also included significant adults, such as grandparents or godparents. Tammy definitely saw these days as community events, while my friend Kath, a parenthood trainer, saw them as private one-to-ones. This just reflects who these people are, so again, decide what works with your family and do that. For the record, in case they read this, I’d love to be involved with special events for my goddaughters, even if it’s only to send a card that tells them ‘what I see in you’.
What to do first?
An important thing I noticed with all the families I spoke to was the connection between the big events and the more regular, intentional ‘space making’, such as celebrating all sorts of things together. The families spoke of loads of fun, but also of the intentional ways they built the culture of celebrating and marking important moments: going out for a family meal to mark the end of a school show or putting up banners to mark exam days. The other thing they all seemed to do was date days: carving out time to spend one-to-one with each of their children; to intentionally connect and make space to hear from their children as well as share with them. It was these regular times that formed the basis for their ‘big thing’, whatever that was. The regular moments seemed to give families not only the foundations in terms of their relationships, but also a good idea of what sort of ‘big’ thing to do.
So that’s where we’re starting: booking in date days with our daughters, building connection in our relationships with them, learning how best to really hear them, as well as making space for us to pour into them. And then, when they’re 10, we’ll be ready!