rite of competence.

In honor of the last day of summer I thought I would repost my article on Dash’s Rite of Competence from the Rhythm of the Home online magazine, Summer 2013 edition. Enjoy your day everyone!

Last May our eldest son had a ninth birthday. In the months preceding, his general childhood lightness of being had shifted slightly. He was sullen, worried and introspective. Those familiar with Waldorf pedagogy will be acquainted with Steiner’s view of the nine year change as a point where the child begins to see themselves apart from others, no longer of the whole. This, for our son, was a confusing time. He was angry with me because he was developing interests that were different from mine. One typical outburst at the dinner table was, “I like weapons and you don’t, that’s why I am mad at you!” He was sensing the change, expressing his new feelings with anger and frustration. His father and I found this time a struggle and worked day by day to adapt our parenting in order to keep up with our burgeoning son.

While we were stumbling around in this new parenting we discovered the Rite of Competence through our sons’ outdoor skills instructor. The Rite of Competence is a ceremony that draws from similar celebrations throughout human civilization. It is like a flood story; part of our collective knowledge. In all cultures there are marked leaps in a child’s development and social life, and acknowledgements of those milestones. It displays and honors their inclusion as contributing to family, community and beyond.

Haven’t we all been striving to have our children fulfill their destiny as part of, rather than observer? Of course. Somewhere along the way we discarded this celebration of contribution. Children are useful and necessary to society and we need to honor them. The Rite creates an opportunity to support our children on the journey to adulthood rather than allowing this natural fissure between parent and child to lead to an alienation. In our case we have used the Rite in support of the nine year change. Others find it works best for their families at the age of seven. Our family celebrated the Rite through an anthroposophical prism. As home-schoolers we feel it is important that our children have other trusted adults in addition to family in their lives to guide, care and appreciate them. Current parenting practice can make us wary of other adults and their impact on our children’s lives. By using common sense along with faith in humanity and our children’s interests, we as parents work to overcome our own fears to expand their lives.

Our son began his Rite by spending time alone in the woods to reflect on what it means to be an older child. At the time we were living in a major city and while there is plenty of green space, alone space is tricky. There is a beautiful hill in a wooded park we had frequented that, as a family, we chose for his Rite. A beautiful mossy path with a tree root staircase. A weekday was chosen because of the lower volume of runners and dog walkers. He spent two hours alone at the top of his staircase, whittling, whistling and chatting with passers-by, a favorite of his activities. I have to laugh thinking about what was going through these peoples minds, “A child alone, the middle of the week, a knife!” During this time his father, I, and his instructor visited him, each with our own roles. I fulfilled the role of storyteller, taking up photos from his life until then. I’m not going to lie, I did a little weeping. My son put his hand on my knee and said, “Oh, Mom.” What a change in roles. I presented him with an armband made of leather with nine small turquoise stones sewn on. A constant reminder of how much I love and respect him.

His father trekked up and spoke to him about the future: the joys and the hardships he will meet and wrestle with as a bigger boy. He then presented our son with a compass with which he is to be guided by. And finally, his much trusted instructor went up to speak with him about the types of behavior an older boy is expected to exhibit, the growth our son has shown, and the experiences they have had together.

Our son was sung down to a circle of his siblings, parents and mentors. I put my hand to my heart, remembering his descent. This was my first-born who is moving up in life, gaining experiences that he will always remember and hold on to as touchstones during those lonely times when he needs guidance and truth. At the circle the adults each held a hand-felted string and stepped forward one by one to make commitments to remain a positive force in his life. Music, tool-making, and water adventures were offered. In the weeks before I had struggled with what I would offer him. As his mother I felt the most meaningful was for me to give him space to explore and just be in the woods alone. In order to make this happen we made a life change by moving out of the city to the countryside. It was in actuality a commitment to all of our children. We drew the circle in towards him to symbolize our closeness — an interconnected web.

In the days preceding, our son had worked on an offering for his family and mentors. He has a deep joy of cooking, serving and sharing food with others, so he made beanie weenies, a family campfire favorite. He soaked, then cooked the beans using a favorite Moosewood recipe, chopped the hot dogs and put it all together the day before. When we arrived on site early in the morning he made a fire, created a centerpiece, and set the table for the meal.

Our son’s contribution to the Rite was this meal.

Drawing the ceremony to a close, our children played and explored while we adults spoke of the importance of such a ritual for the child. Sometimes what can be an imperceptible shift might be overlooked as not important. Respect, growth, acknowledgement of new responsibilities, all these things which are so difficult to put in to words and to make a solid truth for the child. A nudge to a more complete incarnation. A doorway not yet stepped through fully but glimpsed at, dancing on the threshold for a number of years, but seen and supported.

As a family we are all still processing the Rite and what it means for us. Weeks after our son asked us why we did it. I admit to being torn whether or not to fully explain but in the end I did. He needed the explanation to understand. We had been looking to celebrate his changes and challenges while also extending our trusted community of life mentors. We wanted him to know that whenever he needs to reach out he can trust these other adults to help attend. A lesson I have learned as a home-schooler is that we cannot and do not want to provide all; our children need a diversity of reactions and perspectives.

We plan on holding a Rite of Competence for each of our four children. I am sure each will vary slightly and retain a different significance for each. Our seven-year-old son has already been making plans and talking about his Rite. This will become part of our family legend to be passed down for generations. So much more important than the family silver.

A place to start your own research for holding a Rite of Competence for your child can be found here.

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