Smoothing It Over?


Boy's Education
Author Peter Vogel

Peter Vogel sees a critical need for initiation to mark the transitions between different stages of life, particularly for boys.
I recently attended a meeting at my daughter’s school at which the subject of transition from primary school to high school was raised. One mother expressed concern about the possible impact of going from being a "big boy" in year six to being a "little boy" in year seven. The teachers were quick to reassure her that they did everything they could to ensure the transition would be as smooth as possible. The focus was on keeping things as much the same as possible over the transition.

My belief is that this is the wrong approach: the transition from primary school to high school is a big event and should be celebrated as such, not smoothed over to avoid shaking up the children.

Over the course of this century most of the landmarks that people once relied on to navigate through life have been eroded away. In some ways this has been a good thing; since many of the old frameworks were more like straitjackets than guides. But along with the bathwater we have thrown out the baby; leaving children with little guidance or sense of progression through life’s stages.

The issue of life transitions is being recognised by many boys’ advocates as a major area we need to revisit. I think it is a great loss that today’s children grow up without celebrating the achievements of the stage they are leaving and without being welcomed into the new challenges they face.

Although our abandoning of rites of passage has been to the detriment of both girls and boys, I think the their loss causes particular problems for boys. Girls’ spiritual development is also largely neglected, however they cannot help being aware of their development through menarche and childbirth.

The vacuum which has been left by the loss of traditional rites of passage is being filled by boys’ own attempts to initiate themselves and each other. Given prevailing ideas about what masculinity is all about, the consequences for them are often disastrous – one only has to attend the average boy’s 21st birthday celebration to see what shape initiation takes when it is designed by the boy’s peergroup rather than by his elders.

Like everyone else, boys want a sense of belonging. In today’s society, gangs, alcohol, and fast cars are about the only "male business" that provides an experience of brotherhood, loyalty and some sense of community for boys, so many of whom feel bewildered and alone in an apparently "anti-boy" society.

This is one thesis of Robert Bly’s book The Sibling Society. Bly argues that in the absence of leadership from elders, we create a "Sibling Society" where many boys never grow into mature men. Irrespective of one’s views on the mythopoetic movement, I think The Sibling Society is valuable reading for people involved with raising children, and boys in particular.

The idea that boys’ problems might have a spiritual dimension is now being accepted by more mainstream educationalists. Last August, when a group of Principals of Victorian Government High Schools pondered the nature of school education in 2010, they mentioned that "initiation" was a key aspect to be included. They accepted the need to:

      introduce a process which promoted responsible and caring adulthood. It recognises that violence is becoming a serious problem and sees the need to introduce students to the world of heroes, myths, spirituality, ethics and values, intercultural and traditional knowledge. For too long our education system has concentrated too much on the world of facts and development of skills.
Several boys’ advocacy groups in Australia are developing understandings of spiritual growth with a view to providing frameworks in which boys can be guided into healthy and fulfilling adulthood. The New South Wales Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association has made boys’ rites of passage a focus area for this year, through its Pathways to Manhood programme. This field is in its infancy, but well worth watching.

There is nothing mysterious about initiation. One parent told me of an ceremony he and other parents devised to celebrate his children’s completing year 6 and progressing to high school. They spent the day by a beach having a picnic and constructing a whale in the sand. The children who wanted to then took turns to sit on the whale and thank their teachers and friends who had been important to them through primary school. The others then had the opportunity to say to the child what they found special about them, what they remember them achieving, and what they had meant to them personally.

At another school, the "initiation" for children starting high school started with the children meeting in one room and the parents in another. The children spent some time reviewing the past six years and expressing their hopes and fears for the coming ones. They then moved into the adjacent room where the adults welcomed them with hugs and cheers, and a sumptuous banquet.

I’m sure these events will remain in the minds and hearts of all those involved for the rest of their lives.

In view of the present climate of devaluing everything male it is particularly important that parents and teachers give serious consideration to how boys can be made to feel a valued part of the community, and how stages of boys’ development can be recognised and celebrated.

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