Ep 216: Creating a Coming-of-Age Ritual

Episode Summary

David Arms and son Steven Arms, authors of Milestone to Manhood, join us this week to talk about how families can organize a coming-of-age ritual that helps teens embrace their impending adulthood. They break down their family’s ritual, and explain how you can create your own.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Preparing kids for the responsibilities of adulthood is one of parenting’s most critical challenges. Although kids officially become “adults” at 18, the journey to adulthood starts long before then. Teens are figuring out their values, career, love life and identity as they move through puberty and high school! 

For parents, it can be nerve-wracking to watch as kids attempt to handle the challenges of growing up. When teens are wracked with self doubt and insecurity, it can be hard to reassure them that they’re ready to take on new responsibilities! If only there was something we could do to help them enter maturity with confidence and security…

This week, we’re talking about a special ritual parents and kids can complete together to signify the beginning of kids’ journey to adulthood. We’re talking to David and Steven Arms, authors of Milestone to Manhood. Our first ever father-son guest duo, these two men are here to tell us all about a ritual that takes place in their family whenever a boy turns 13–and how you can use their model to create your own family rite of passage. 

In our interview, we’re discussing each element of their family coming-of-age ritual, and its significance. Plus, how David and Steven use this rite of passage to have important conversations about everything from faith to sex, and how you can plan a coming-of-age event for your own kid.

What Is A Rite of Passage?

When someone in the Arms family turns 13, the older males–uncles, cousins, brothers, grandpas and fathers–plan an entire weekend of activities for them. Throughout the weekend, the 13 year-old faces a slate of leadership tasks, and receives advice about life from each of his older relatives. This entire trip is kept secret from the participant, until it’s already underway, Steve and David explain.

In the episode, David breaks down the rite of passage weekend he planned for Steven, which took place at a lakeside cabin. Throughout the weekend, there was a burning fire that Steven was expected to maintain. Instead of stoking it himself from morning to night, Steven took leadership and delegated its upkeep to each member of the family. The ability to practice leadership on a small, controlled scale is a big way to nudge kids towards adult responsibilities, they explain.

To David and Steven, devout Christians, the fire is an important biblical symbol or resilience. They encourage the listener to find their own version of this activity based on their personal faith or values. Other parts of their ritual, like each man reading a bible verse, can be replaced by recommending important books or sharing significant stories between the group–whatever your family is comfortable doing.

Beyond just activities, the rite of passage also includes having important discussions about life and growing up. Steven and David are breaking down how to approach heavy topics with teens as they’re coming of age.

Talking About The Big Stuff

During Steven’s rite of passage weekend, the men of his family had an open discussion about sex–which helped him develop a healthy relationship with his own sexuality, he says. Steven explains how hearing his family members discuss sex in a non-judgemntal manner among one another made him feel as though he could ask them anything. By removing the stigma around sex, the men were able to create a safe space to discuss it.

One of the main messages the older men attempt to impart on each trip is one of unconditional love and support. Reminding kids that you’ll love them no matter what provides them with the ability to have open dialogue with you no matter how old they are.

For example, Steven recalls a period where he was questioning his own values, and didn’t know if he could talk to his parents about it. Once he remembered the rite of passage weekend, however, he realized his family was a safe place for challenging discussions, and opened up to his grandfather about what he was feeling. His grandfather’s advice set him back on track and reminded him that he’s not alone.

David explains in the episode that kids are going to look for ways to feel like an adult as they move through teenagerhood, and sometimes turn to drugs or other risky behavior to feel mature. If we can have conversations with them about maturity while they’re in the process of growing up, we can help prevent them from going down a bad road. 

So how can we create our own rite on passage weekend? What if our kids are older–is it too late? David, Steven and I are explaining how you can create a version of the ritual for your own family.

Creating Your Own Ritual

If you’re interested in recreating this coming of age ritual or designing your own, David and Steven recommend planning far in advance. They always send emails to family members months and weeks in advance, to ensure that they’d be able to fit the weekend into their busy lives. The more planning you do, the better, they explain, especially if you’re feeling nervous or overwhelmed. With a schedule and prepared discussion topics, no one will have to wing anything.

For parents who aren’t as close to their extended family or are pressed for time planning the weekend, a one-on-one event between father and son is better than nothing, they explain. David and Steven also encourage a little bit of spontaneity, recalling the valuable memories they made doing unplanned activities during the weekend. And although closer to 13 is better, it’s never too late to plan a weekend like this for kids.

David and Steven touch on the value of a gift passed between father and son at the end of the weekend–a gift that requires responsibility to signal their newfound maturity. This gift doesn’t have to be expensive, but instead rich in sentimental value. David gave his sons each a piece of his own father’s coin collection, but encouraged parents to find their own version of this gift. It could be a piece of jewelry, a pet or a family antique, something to remind kids that they’re burgeoning adults with a new level of expected responsibility.

In The Episode…

I enjoyed talking to David and Steven this week about their unique family ritual. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • Why this ritual prepares kids to take on household chores
  • How different cultures inspired their take on a rite of passage
  • Why each mentor should leave teens with a book to read
  • How handwritten letters can play a role in the ritual

If you liked this episode, you can check out David and Steven’s website, milestonetomanhood.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Super excited. We got David and Steven Arms on the show talking about the book that you guys wrote together, Milestone to Manhood. I love how you guys switch off with the writing, and we get the whole section from the Rite of Passage written by Steven. Can you just walk us through a little bit? Where did this come from? The book is about something that you guys have been doing in your family. I’m curious what inspired you to write it into a book, and where did the idea for this whole thing come from in the first place?

Dave: It’s a weekend that a father can organize for his 13-year-old son. The idea is to bestow the title of man on him. The weekend involves not only the father, but other male role models, typically maybe his grandfather or father’s uncles, older brothers, older cousins, anyone who has achieved the age of 13 and been through a rite of passage weekend. It all got started because my father-in-law organized a rite of passage for my first son when he was about 12 years old to celebrate on his 13th birthday. So in the book we write about our family story and how the weekend changed our son’s trajectory.

Andy: So Rite of Passage is something that traditionally has existed, has been something that humans did for a long time, but is kind of not such a thing in our culture today, it seems like?

Dave: The Rite of Passage is an event that happens in a man’s life, ideally about the age of 13. There are reasons for that that we can get into. But it’s an event that he can look back on and say, “This was a specific moment in my life that I was recognized by my dad and other men in the family that I became a man.” As you touched on, other cultures have had rite of passage ceremonies. Probably the best known example is the Bar Mitzvah, but there are others. For example, there’s an Australian aboriginal walkabout.

Regardless of the society, the rite of passage has three elements that make it unique. The first element is separation from the tribe or from the family. The second element is that there’s a challenge involved. Then the third element is reincorporation back into society where he comes back no longer as a boy, but now as a man. There really isn’t a good rite of passage event in Western society today, much less a Christian one. We find that we’ve got men who tend to extend their adolescence into their teens and 20s, so we have a bunch of men acting like boys. We just think this is a good way to help alleviate that societal problem.

Andy: I think it’s powerful. Just the way that you tell this in the book, it really feels like, looking back on that, yeah, that’s an important point in your life. Steven, you wrote about how a decade later or something like this in your 20s, you were really reflecting with a friend during his wedding or something, and really it hit you just how important this experience was for you or how unique it was.

Steven: Yeah, absolutely. When I was in my early 20s, I had a friend who asked me to be the best man at his wedding. We were new friends, so we were still just getting to know each other. But one time we were hanging out, and he had a lot on his mind. He was thinking about being a husband soon, potentially being a father soon. He asked me, “Steve, when was the first time that you considered yourself to be a man?” That was the first time that anyone had ever asked me that question before. I was pretty clearly able to answer. I was like, “Well, when my dad and my grandpa and my uncles took me away for my 13th birthday and gave me this rite of passage weekend. Ever since then, I’ve just known that I’m a man.”

Dave: I could tell you the exact day actually, as a matter of face.

Steven: Exactly, yeah. It was in that conversation with my friend that I realized, “Wow, this is a really special thing that my family did for me.” In fact, most men these days can’t look back and realize the exact moment they became a man. So in that way I realized at that moment how lucky I was.

Andy: What struck me about the whole weekend that you describe, you walk us through the whole experience in the book, it’s really cool to see it from your perspective. What just really stood out to me is how much planning was involved in this whole thing. It’s not something that you just threw together. Dave wasn’t just like, “Hey, yeah. Let’s do a rite of passage this weekend. We’ll go and see how it goes.” It was really well planned out, and there was other male role models involved from your life and everything. So it seemed like it was something that you’d been thinking about for a long time.

Dave: Yeah, definitely. There was a lot of planning involved and quite a bit of research, looking at other societies, how they had handled this, and elements that we wanted to put in it to make it unique to exactly what we wanted to do, to make it relevant to an adolescent. We were in the Bay area of San Francisco at the time, so it took a lot of planning.

But the beautiful thing, Andy, is that now, after we did each one of these starting with my eldest son, which was we did this 20 years ago, afterwards we would always have a debriefing luncheon with our son and any of the men that were involved with that could join us. We would just interview him and say, “What’d you like about the weekend? Was there anything uncomfortable? What’s your favorite part?” So we were continuously improving the process so that we feel like each and every time we did it it was a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better. Now we’ve got this blueprint, this documented in our book, and on our website, there’s a lot of material that help a dad or a grandfather plan this for his son without really having to reinvent the wheel.

Andy: There’s such specific… You guys really have got it figured out. There’s these rituals that are really powerful moments and ceremonies. You have the whole weekend even scheduled out for how you could put those together. It sounds like some of those came from men’s groups; some of those came from other cultures that you looked at. It’s accumulating these sort of ideas from different places. But the way that they all come together and fit together in your guys’s rite of passage is powerful. I was wondering how many you did before this one. The one that you write about in the book, is this the first time you did this, or how many times had you under your belt at this point?

Steven: This was actually the second rite of passage that our family had organized. I have an older brother who is the eldest grandchild, and then there’s six of us grandchildren in the family. So in total we did six rite of passages throughout the years. One neat thing about the rite of passage is that once a boy goes through it, he’s considered to be a man in the family now, so he’s eligible to be one of those older male role models for the younger boys during their rites of passage. So my older brother was actually supposed to be on my rite of passage trip. He was actually home sick that weekend with the flu.

Andy: Oh, no!

Steven: But not only did I have a rite of passage for myself when I turned 13, but I was able to attend the rites of passages for my two younger brothers and for my two younger cousins as well.

Andy: Oh, wow. That’s so cool. So you’ve seen it from all kinds of different perspectives.

Steven: Yeah, absolutely.

Andy: Can you guys walk me through a little bit of this? I love how it is in the book. It’s like a story. We have the story of the weekend from Steven’s perspective of what we go through. I can really just picture it all in my head. I love the way… You set it up as a surprise, Dave. You weren’t just like, “Hey, we’re going to do a rite of passage. Here’s everything that’s going to happen. Here’s the schedule for the weekend.” It was all planned in secret, and then Steve didn’t really know what was going on at the time.

Dave: Exactly, yeah. Steve and I just left town with the intent, at least in his mind, that it was just going to be he and his dad going away for the weekend, going camping. On the way up to our destination, we stopped for lunch. Lo and behold, at the restaurant, seated at a table nearby are his grandfather and his uncles and kind of trying to be inconspicuous and holding menus up over their faces so they can’t be seen, so they looked a little strange. So when Steve figured it out, his grandfather said, “Okay, Steve, this is what’s really happening for this weekend. All your uncles are here. A lot of them came from long way away. They’re taking time out of their weekends from their families to do this for you because this is how important you are to us all.” From then on, it just kind of flows. Then Steve plays an active role in all the events. He doesn’t know what’s coming, but he’s definitely central in each event.

Andy: I love the involvement of the uncles. It immediately makes it feel really, really special. It’s like, “I don’t even know what’s going on. I have no idea where we’re going or what’s going to happen. But I just know how cool it is that they came all the way here.” Obviously, this is something that’s been planned. It sets up really this suspense for the weekend. I just love the way you set that all up at the beginning. It’s really nicely orchestrated.

Dave: It’s probably a little overwhelming at first glance, but it certainly leaves an impression on them. I don’t think he’s ever going to forget this weekend.

Andy: Yeah, you got his full attention here.

Dave: Yeah, exactly.

Andy: So you meet up with them, get food there, and then head back into the car and off to a lake somewhere.

Dave: That’s right. On the way up, we told Steve, “You know what? Normally, you’re in the back of the bus here being the kid, but on this trip you’re going to be riding shotgun, and you’re going to make some decisions this weekend.” So we just start treating him like one of us, like one of the adults.

Andy: So things are already changing. This adult thing is already setting in, I see.

Dave: Exactly, exactly.

Andy: Still, you’re not saying, “Hey, here’s everything that we’re going to do this weekend.” It’s still a lot of mystery and suspense. I love that. He doesn’t know what’s coming, and that’s going to keep him really on the edge of his seat.

Dave: Exactly, yeah. The first thing we did is got up to the lake and took a boat over to the cabin. Then we have basically a series of ceremonies or rituals that we go through. The first one would be considered the entrance ceremony where we gather around him. I would read him a passage out of the book of Exodus where Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush. So fire becomes a theme for the weekend in which Steve will start a fire inside the cabin, and it’ll be his responsibility to keep it burning throughout the weekend. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be stoking the fire all weekend. Again, now we have some new responsibilities, and he’s assigning the different men different shifts throughout the night to keep the fire going.

Once we’re in the cabin, we start getting ready for our first meal together for dinner. Again, Steve’s assigning who’s cooking, who’s cleaning up, who’s setting the table, all this kind of thing. After dinner, we get into our first indoor ritual where we just go around the room, each of us tell him what we think it is to be a man, to be a good virtuous man, some of our experiences and thoughts on how we think we can help mentor him through his teenage years, and always keeping that door open. That’s one of the themes, not only of the weekend, but what he can walk away with is knowing that if he’s ever struggling with something, that he can come to any one of us. Our door’s always open. There sometimes may be some dynamics going on between a dad and an adolescent or a teenager in which he may not be comfortable coming to his dad, but now he’s got his grandfather he can come to. His uncles he can come to. He walks away with that knowing for the rest of his life. Actually, that did come into play for Steve a little bit later on.

Andy: Oh, yeah?

Steven: One of the things that get repeated through the weekend is, “If there’s anything that you ever want to talk to me about,” this is one of the older men talking to the 13-year-old boy, to me, “if there’s ever a time in life where you need advice, you can come to us at any point. We love you unconditionally. We will always have your best interest at heart, and you can come to us with anything.” At the time as a 13-year-old, I heard those words, but I didn’t know how that was actually going to be helpful to me in my life.

It wasn’t until I would say my college years, my late teens and early 20s, that I took them up on their offer. In college, like a lot of people, I really started to question my faith and doubt my belief in God. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how my parents were going to react if I told them, “I don’t know if I want to go to church anymore. I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.” I didn’t know what that would do to our relationship. So I was understandably kind of afraid to talk to them about it.

But I remembered my rite of passage weekend, which was probably six or seven years previous, and how my dad and my grandfather and my uncles said, “We will love you unconditionally. We will have your best interest at heart. You can come to us with anything.” So in college was really the first time that I put those words to the test. I went to my grandfather, and I told him the questions that I was having. I asked him, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore. Why do you believe in God?” He was able to share. He wasn’t able to answer all of the questions that I had, but he was able to help me on my own faith journey.

Andy: You mentioned something else earlier also in the book, too, when you were talking about sexuality. There’s a conversation that you had where all of the men are sharing what sexuality means to them and their views about sex. I thought it was really interesting to see your reaction to that, which was, well, having this conversation, but also your reaction to that was, “Oh, wow. All these men seem pretty comfortable talking about sex to each other. I guess that’s an okay thing for men to do.” I thought that was really powerful just in showing, “Yeah, you can come to me, but also just you can talk about this stuff.” There’s so much about this weekend that I feel like that’s giving people permission so that you know could always come to them, but also so that you’re opening the door to talk about all these other topics as well and things that maybe are difficult or awkward to talk about. By role modeling that during this weekend, you open the door to that.

Steven: That’s a good way of phrasing it, giving permission and just giving space. This weekend wasn’t “the talk,” the birds and the bees talk. My dad had already given me that maybe around, I don’t know, what would you say, Dad, 10 years old.

Dave: I think it was 11, somewhere around there.

Steven: I had previously had the birds and the bees talk with my dad, so I knew kind of the mechanics of it. But I think during this rite of passage weekend discussing about what it means to be a man, my dad and the other men left no stone unturned. They really tried to speak to almost every aspect of manhood, and sexuality is definitely one of those. My dad gave me his perspective on sexuality and how there’s basically two paths. One says you can do anything as long as you love the person. Then the other path says how important it is to wait for your future spouse.

It was that conversation, as a 13-year-old, I was still nervous to talk about sex. That seems like a taboo thing to talk about. Seeing my dad talk about sex in front of my grandfather, his own father-in-law, and then hearing my dad talk about sex in front of my uncles, his brother-in-laws, to me, I felt like, “Oh, that’s really awkward. He’s married to his daughter. You can’t talk about that kind of stuff in front of Grandpa.” But hearing my dad open up about, it was like, “Oh, I guess this is normal for men to have conversations about sex. So I think, for me, that kind of gave me permission. It gave me the space to be able to talk about those things in the future.

Andy: Yeah, I love that.

Dave: I think from the adult perspective, too, it can be uncomfortable to talk to your son about that kind of thing. This might be an area where dads may be intimidated about pulling this off. “How do we do this? I don’t if I’m comfortable talking to my son about these things.” But as a father, we need to look and remember that this is something I’m doing for son. I’m not doing it for myself. You’ve got the support of the other guys that you’re doing it with for the weekend, so you’ve already kind of worked these things out, what you’re going to talk about, just a basic outline so not everything’s going to fall on your shoulders. Every guy’s going to have every each other’s back. Then again, we have lots of information on our website about the layout of the weekend and what subjects you may talk about. Even the planning, like you said, there’s a lot of planning involved in something like this, but we’ve got email templates on a monthly basis. Send this email out six months before the event.

Andy: Ooh.

Dave: It lays out exactly what each guy should do six months out, three months out, a month out, a week out, and then after the event, a thank you email to everybody. So you really got a turnkey system here going that, I think, helps take away the intimidation factor.

Andy: One of the moments in the ceremony that’s really powerful is the exchange of letters. That definitely strikes me as one of those things, you’re going to have to be sending out emails in advance and coordinating with people. Because you had a folder full of letters from a bunch of different family members that people had written to him that you then passed over to him one night with advice from people that became something for him to keep forever.

Dave: That’s right. Of course, not only are the letters from the men involved in the weekend, but anybody who’s significant in his life, including his mom, grandmother, aunts, whoever. Even in Steve’s case, we involved his troop master. He wrote him a nice letter. The beautiful thing about the letters is, honestly, during the weekend, there are so many things being thrown at him that not everything is going to stick at the time. The letters are just like this overwhelming thing, but they are something that he can come back to over and over again throughout his life to just reinforce how much all these people that are important to him love him as memento. Now, there’s been a couple of his grandparents that have passed since his 13th birthday, so he’s got these letters of love and affirmation from them that he can occasionally look back on.

Andy: What do you think about spontaneity? Is it possible to do a rite a passage without so much of the preparation, just kind of get out there and go with the flow? Maybe just two of you together, something a little more simple. Or you think it needs all these moving pieces to be involved?

Dave: Well, I would say that doing it one-on-one would be better than not doing it at all. Again, if it’s a little bit intimidating for someone to pull one of these off, the enemy of intimidation is preparation. So if you have the ability to pull something off where you’re involving other people and you’ve got it planned out and you know exactly what you’re going to do when, it’s probably going to go a lot smoother.

Andy: Take some of the burden off yourself.

Dave: Exactly, and probably be more memorable for your son.

Andy: Well, that’s what strikes me is that in that moment when you stop at the restaurant and the uncles are there and grandpa’s there, it immediately is like, “Oh, this is special. This is important. All these people took the time to come and just show up for me.” There’s something really powerful about that.

Steven: Andy, I’d like to add, the weekend and the rituals, there’s definitely a lot of moments of spontaneity. Even though it is so formal and organized, there were a lot of moments while we’re cooking dinner together as a team. I have a lot of good memories for my rite of passage of my grandfather being really silly, and just these fun moments during my rite of passage. So there’s definitely still room for spontaneity in this event.

Also, I think that one of the beautiful things about the rituals and how organized it is that it really keeps the group on track, so it really keeps the focus of conversation about manhood and about this boy becoming a man. I know as a man myself, sometimes it’s hard to have those deeper, intimacy-type conversations. There’s a tendency to stay at the trivial level and not dig in too deep. But having the rituals keeps the group on track, and it’s like, “No, let’s talk about these things,” because it’s really going to help the boy as he goes into his teens and his 20s. He needs to have these conversations with his family before he goes out into the world.

About David and Steven Arms

David and Steven  Arms are the authors of Milestone to Manhood.

David is a Catholic Deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He  is a husband as well as the father to four grown sons. He created the Rite of Passage weekend with his father-in-law.

Steven is an engineer based in Portland, Oregon. He’s also a speaker and thought-leader who shares ideas about faith, athletics, and family. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two young children.

Want More Milestones to Manhood?

Check out David and Steven’s website, milestonetomanhood.com