I’ve always prided myself on being a good father, but sometimes I just don’t know if I am. Like any parent, sometimes I realize that I either haven’t done something for my kids that I should, or that I did something I shouldn’t have.
My younger son recently turned 21. I feel like I should have done something to observe this great marker of final manhood, to show him that hey, once and for all and in every way he’s an adult in this world.
I suppose I could have arranged for him an appropriate rite of passage. I do have it on my short list of things to do to take him out for a beer. I’m not sure if he likes beer, but even if he doesn’t, it’ll reinforce for him one of the most difficult realizations of adulthood: Sometimes, you just keep your mouth shut and swallow whatever you have to, even if it’s unpalatable. Maybe, when I buy him a beer, it should be a Buckhorn.
Of course, I could extend the ceremony and buy him the beer at a strip joint. That would have the advantage of introducing not only to how a true adult drinks irresponsibly, but also how a real man sometimes gives in to the more juvenile aspects of his sexuality. What man hasn’t looked at a stripper and thought: Hey, it’s a nekkid lady? Even when she isn’t, technically.
There is, by the way, some precedent for the strip-show-as-rite-of-passage. It’s deeply engrained in our culture in ways most aren’t even aware of.
The evidence is one of Norman Rockwell’s lesser known works, “A Boy’s First Lap Dance.” It’s one of his typical evocations of small-town innocence. The drop-jawed look on the gangly, freckle-faced kid is priceless; you can almost hear him suck in his breath as the dancer shakes her moneymaker in his face. Of course, that the dancer in question is 70ish, portly and wearing a flowered housedress, and that the moneymaker she’s shaking is a plate of chocolate chip cookies, only adds to the charm.
But in all seriousness, it does sort of make you wonder: Why is it, in our society, the closest things we have for a rite of passage into manhood center around alcoholic excess and juvenile sexuality?
It’s one of the few ways in which primitive cultures do something important that we don’t. Some cultural groups send young men off on a vision quest of some kind; others have things like circumcision rituals, although I’m not sure I’d be in favor of that (and I’m only talking about males here; female circumcision is a barbaric, crippling practice that is less about passage into adulthood than control over women).
Of course, passage into adulthood wasn’t really much of an issue for a lot of Western history. Until the 19th century, Victorian idealizing of childhood, kids basically were treated as little adults. But once the 1800s rolled around, and childhood became thought of as a sort of halcyon time, there was more of a demarcation between that period and adulthood. They were a little fuzzy on marking that line, resulting in things like horrendous child labor, but that’s a different issue; that’s more economic than social.
But when Victorian society drew that line, it somehow missed marking any kind of dramatic point in crossing it. The closest we ever came up with were laws limiting certain types of behavior, like drinking, to people of a certain age.
As a result, a boy becomes a man in little steps. There’s the driver’s license, the first job. There’s the first girlfriend. For some who are less than wise, there’s that first adult arrest and that first night in a jail other than a juvenile facility. Not exactly as meaningful as a vision quest, but possibly as dramatic.
Maybe that’s why so many supposedly adult men have a tendency to act so juvenile. It is possible, in this society, to hang on like grim death to certain aspects of youth. How many times have you seen a man’s immature behavior excused with the observation that “boys will be boys?”
One has to wonder how many of our societal problems, at least the ones that are largely male, have to do with the lack of signifiers of adulthood. Some of those problems are pretty obvious. In large urban areas, where gang violence is a problem, the gangs provide the kind of tribal context for initiation into manhood. If committing a robbery, or, God forbid, murder is part of one’s initiation into the tribe (and that’s what a gang is), that provides a pretty clear signpost for whether you’ve made it or not.
There are specific parts of our culture where rites of passage are observed, but they’re small, isolated and don’t apply to everybody. I’ve heard of hunting enthusiasts who mark a boy’s first deer kill in various ways, which is closer to what I’m talking about here but still sort of vaguely creepy.
Shouldn’t there be some kind of rite of passage that doesn’t involved booze, guns or women in g-strings?
Frankly, I don’t know what it could be. Having grown up in this culture myself, and having raised two boys to manhood, I don’t really have any ideas.
Maybe, given Western culture, there just isn’t a way to do that. Artificially developed rites smack of a sort of New Age fuzziness anyway and since our culture doesn’t really value that kind of thing, maybe it would be a waste of time.But still, you have to wonder … how many better men would our culture produce if we let them know exactly when it was time to grow up?