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Rite of Passage

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In 1976, the city of Montreal hosted the games of the XXI Olympiad. For a young sports enthusiast such as I, those Olympics captured my attention like few things could. Day and night I sat in front of our family television, watching the world's greatest athletes pursue their Olympic dreams. I'll never forget how Nadia Comaneci, a fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast, amazed the world with her brilliance, winning three gold medals -- she was the darling of those games, for sure. I remember watching the great Bruce Jenner from the United States set the world record in the decathlon; and of course, like many other Canadians, I cheered loud and hard when Greg Joy of Canada won an unexpected silver medal in the men's high jump. The Montreal Olympics captured a nation's attention in 1976 and they remain a lasting memory from my youth to this day.

As exciting as the Montreal Olympics were, they took place under a veil of controversy. Unfortunately many countries, including several African nations, boycotted the 1976 games. Earlier that year, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team had played matches throughout South Africa and those matches started a political uproar. South Africa had been banned from the Olympics due to their apartheid policies, and numerous countries felt New Zealand should be banned from the Olympics for allowing the All Blacks to tour South Africa. When New Zealand was allowed to participate, many other countries protested through boycotting.

Of course the boycotting countries did get a great deal of media attention. I recall one television vignette that focused on the Kenyan athletes absent from the games. The news anchor narrated a video of Kenyan runners in training under a brilliant Serengeti sunrise, with wild lions, elephants, and giraffes wandering in the distance. Immediately captivated, I thought, Someday I'm going to go to Kenya and see those sights for myself!

In 2005 the opportunity to travel and work in Africa presented itself, and my boyhood dream of seeing Kenya came true. During that amazing trip I saw countless miracles and learned a great deal about the various African cultures as I worked and visited with the people I met there.
I'm an information junky when I travel; I enjoy learning about various cultures, beliefs, and traditions. In Kenya I learned about the importance the people place on "rites of passage" rituals. The Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, for example, transition the boys of their communities into manhood by having them sleep outside in the forest amongst the wild animals for a night. At dawn the boys are led into the village for a day of celebration, including dancing, singing, and the interesting ritual of drinking cow's milk laced with cow's blood. The day of celebration ends with the boys being led to the elders' lodge to be circumcised while family and friends taunt them, telling them that if they flinch they will be disowned. The boys must show strength throughout the entire ritual to be considered men; though it is a rite of passage celebration, there are devastating and lifelong ramifications for any boy that fails.

I listened to these stories in disbelief and, to be honest, I cringed. But what became very evident to me was the importance the Masai place on becoming an adult in their society. Their rite of passage from boyhood to manhood is difficult, and to survive the experience the boys are required to display courage and strength if they want to assume their position as a respected adult in their society.

When I returned from my trip to Africa to my lovely wife and three sons, I realized that my oldest boy, Brad, would be graduating soon from high school. No longer would he be a boy in our society; he would be viewed as a young man. I wondered, had we done enough as parents to prepare Brad to assume his role as a man in our society, or was he simply a boy in a man's body? Was he aware of what was really happening in his life, and what his growing responsibilities would mean? I wanted to believe that Brad was ready for his graduation from high school -- his "rite of passage" -- but I couldn't convince myself that we had done enough as parents to mentally prepare him for his next step.

And so . . . the spring of Brad's high school graduation became our family's "rite of passage" ceremony for him. No, we didn't have him sleep outside in the wild and drink milk laced with blood; and we certainly didn't have him circumcised at night's end! But we did make a concerted effort to transition him from a boy living at home to a young man venturing out into the world.

One of the most significant initiatives we embarked on as parents that spring was to develop what we now call our "next step" contract for Brad: a written document in which my wife and I shared our memories of Brad with him, recalling milestones and fun moments from his childhood. Then, in that same document, we tried to imagine what Brad's post-high school adult life would look like, with its new realities and growing responsibilities. We shared with him how we desired the best for him and we outlined various ways we could assist him as he moved into manhood; but in the end we made it clear that this passage was a significant one in his life, and it was something that he had to take seriously if he wanted to be successful. By graduation day he realized that this passage wasn't just as simple as walking across a stage in front of your family and peers and accepting a diploma. He had learned that becoming a man was far more complicated than that.

The "rite of passage" experience with our son Brad was a very positive one. So much so that we have continued the "next step" ritual with sons two and three. By entering into this process with our children, Kathy and I have found that our sons have more readily and successfully accepted their transition into adulthood than we believe they would have otherwise.

It would be great to hear how other parents have helped coach their young men and women through the transition from youth to adulthood. If you have some ideas, please feel free to share them here.

Success doesn't just happen -- it's planned for.

Tom Watson