Pulling Your Community Together
There are plenty of things to consider when determining the style and flavor of your coming-of-age event. A critical component of Marca Via’s model for a coming-of-age celebration is bringing together your community to plan and execute the event. There are three crucial decisions to be made at the outset:
- Do you want your group to be co-ed or single gender (e.g., men for boys and women for girls)?
- How big (or small) do you want your coming-of-age team to be?
- Whom do you want to invite to plan and put on the event? (These are the folks who will help you put the event together and who will give the event its meaning and value for the child.)
Your first decision will be the gender of the participants. This will be a matter of personal preference, so we will provide some arguments for and against separating the event by gender, where men are the primary participants for a boy, and women the primary participants for a girl. There is no right answer, so you can and should choose what feels right to you and will be most powerful for your child. We offer the following to help you think this through.
(If you have a gender-fluid child, family members, or community members, you may find the traditional gender category for selecting your community unhelpful. Proceed to the next topic below on Group Size!)
The argument for gender separation:
Although society has changed tremendously since the ancient rites of passage were designed, there probably are a few good reasons that these rites so frequently are separated by gender that still apply today. First, the emerging adult is already well aware that our society recognizes differences between the genders, and perhaps even the roles, values, and skills males and females may need to succeed in life. We can’t and shouldn’t pretend that this awareness doesn’t exist today. However, we can use it to our benefit in a gender-segregated event to teach our children how to prepare and cope with these aspects of life in our society.
Secondly, by segregating by gender, you likely will create a more homogenous group, potentially reducing social pressures and/or social posturing that may occur with a mixed-gender group. Separating by gender may make people feel more comfortable and willing to share their wisdom and experiences – including the good, bad, and ugly, all of which can be useful teaching opportunities for a young person.
Lastly, many young people turn to people of the same gender to model the behaviors, skills, and strengths they believe they should emulate as they transition into adulthood. If this is the case, single gender may be the way to go. For example, it may be quite challenging for a man to try to educate a girl simply applying what he thinks is important to learn to be a woman. His opinion may well be valid, but he lacks the direct experience that will help inform a girl about things she will face growing into a woman.
The argument for gender integration:
Our society continues to move in the direction of blurring traditional gender roles, both in the workplace and in the home. As a result, the lessons we want to teach a young woman or a young man may well be taught equally by members of their own gender or the opposite gender. If you want to emphasize how to be an adult (rather than a woman or man), then less of the emphasis needs to be on gender-specific messages.
Gender integration also sends a message to the child that his or her community of support extends beyond those of the same gender and that one can and should learn from everyone around them. Clearly, all adults regardless of gender have important lessons to impart to any young person transitioning into adulthood.
The argument for a hybrid approach:
For our children’s events, we found all these arguments held merit, so we decided on a single-gender approach that integrated the opposite gender at relevant times. For example, during one of our sons’ events, several women popped into the scene throughout the day to have short conversations with him since he later would be evaluated on how well he listened to the women in his life. The women also helped create and administer the final challenge, which was a quiz. For our daughter, Dad helped create a few of the challenges and several male relatives were invited to cheer her on during some of the activities.
Once you’ve decided on your gender approach, you’ll need to decide how many people you would like to participate. We’ve found that a group size between five and 12 works well.
A group of at least five people helps communicate the importance of the event to the child and ensures that plenty of experiences, perspectives, and wisdom will be shared. A group larger than 12 participants may be harder to manage and could overwhelm the child. In addition, with a larger group, people may get distracted with socializing rather than focusing on the child and the event, the activities, and the sharing of wisdom. You’ll want a group that’s small enough for the child to recall all of the people who attended and what they helped teach.
It’s important to emphasize, though, that the exact number of people is not as important as getting the right people on your team. Each coming-of-age event is unique to the individual being celebrated and his or her community. You can plan a meaningful event with just one parent and one child, or with a small village. So we strongly discourage you from inviting the wrong people just to get to five participants. An intimate event is much preferable to a larger group that includes people who don’t have a meaningful relationship with your child or family or who don’t quite understand the intent and importance of the event.
WHOM TO INVITE
Once you know your gender plan and an appropriate group size, it’s time to select the people who will help you design and execute your coming-of-age event. In choosing the people who will participate, some useful guiding principles include:
- The person plays (or has played) an important role in the child’s life
- The person has something useful or valuable to add to the event
- The person is mature enough to understand the importance of the event
In addition to key family members, consider family friends who have a close relationship with the child, as well as other adults who are important in his or her life such as favorite teachers, coaches, mentors, friends’ parents, neighbors, etc. We recommend that you seek your child’s input on whom he or she would like to have participate in this special day. You may have missed someone important, or you may have included someone who actually makes your child uncomfortable. You want the honoree to feel completely at ease sharing the experience with the people in attendance so if you include the wrong people or virtual strangers (e.g., friends of yours who don’t have a relationship with your child), it could be awkward for the kid.
Now for the tricky part. We can all probably think of certain family and friends who have the potential to push an event like this off the rails. We believe it’s best to exclude those people if at all possible! If that’s not realistic, then you should spend some extra time planning how you will communicate to them what the tone, intent, and meaning of the event is. You may even have to be bold and explicit about what will NOT happen during the festivities. Another tactic is to consider which challenge or lesson would best tap these individuals’ strengths, then corral their energies toward those activities. Or perhaps you can assign them roles throughout the event (such as managing and setting up equipment and props, or taking photographs), giving them a bit less opportunity to disrupt the group dynamic. Just keep in mind that anyone who might try to humiliate or shame the child because they think it’s funny must either be excluded or fully contained
One question that may arise is whether to include the child’s friends in the event. While acknowledging that each person is different and one size does not fit all, our advice is to be cautious about this. After all, this is a highly personal rite of passage welcoming the child into a new phase of life. The coming-of-age event is intended to be an experience where the emerging adult learns from his or her elders. Anything that detracts from that should be avoided. The child is more likely to feel self-conscious in front of a group of peers and may not engage fully in the experience when friends are watching. (However, an alternative idea that may appeal to some people is to plan a coming-of-age event for a group of tightly-knit families with children of similar ages.)
If you decide to include the child’s friends as part of the event, consider whether the friends meet the three criteria mentioned above – they play an important role in the child’s life; they have something useful or valuable to add to the event; and they are mature enough to understand the importance of the event. Even then, you should decide how much of the event the friends should be involved in and which tests they can participate in. (Perhaps a cameo appearance so that they can be considered for the Oscar for best supporting actor!)
One caveat to this advice is if friends or relatives have already gone through coming-of-age ceremonies of their own, then they should be included as “adults.” In our case, we did not include friends in the first two coming-of-age events we held (for our sons). But on our third time around, with our daughter, we felt there was a nice opportunity to include some of her friends for a couple of the final challenges, the sharing of wisdom activity, and the river plunge concluding ritual.
HOW TO INVITE PEOPLE
Since this coming-of-age approach will be new to some or all of your team members, you will need to explain the concept and what you hope to accomplish. This communication step is important since it will be vital that all participants clearly understand the intent behind the event. Someone who comes in with the wrong idea could make it difficult to achieve the desired result. For example, if someone thinks a coming-of-age event is similar to hazing, it could prove very challenging for you to elevate the event to a meaningful life moment. The group will take their cues from you regarding the tone of the event and how they are expected to behave, so think this through and don’t be shy about communicating what is expected. (You also can steer them to the Marca Via website at www.marca-via.com and have them download the Coming of Age Guidebook.)
The tone of your specific event will be a matter of personal preference. We believe that the event should be treated with seriousness, but with plenty of opportunity for everyone to laugh and enjoy themselves. Having fun helps turn an event into a fond memory, and laughing together is a great way to build trust which is needed for the key messages to be heard by the child. The general idea is that you want the child to realize that these people are here to pose challenges but also to teach and support. It’s a time for growth, learning, and fun. It will be important for there to be a healthy amount of laughing with the child and not at the child!
Here are some tips that will help set you up for success and establish the proper expectations and tone:
- Prepare your participants for what to expect. Since a coming-of-age event is not a very common experience in American society (at least not yet!), some people may feel anxious or uncertain about what is going to happen and what is expected of them. Be clear about: Why you are inviting them; the importance and meaning of the event that is being planned (this is not just a run-of-the-mill birthday celebration or an open house; what their role will be and what is expected of them for planning and executing the event; how the day likely will unfold
Think of it this way: when you attend a wedding, you generally know what is coming. There’s typically a ceremony, often a meal, and then dancing. You know what you’re getting into. Try to help your participants understand what the coming-of-age event will look like so that you can get their full support and buy-in. In other words, provide the scaffolding so that your participants know what you’re building together. It also will be helpful to point your coming-of-age team to Marca Via’s website (www.marca-via.com) to help them gain some familiarity through that platform.
- Try to get your participants together in person ahead of time to brainstorm ideas and plan the activities and challenges. This will give you the opportunity to speak up if you see ideas going sideways. These reminders will reinforce that the event is not intended simply for their entertainment.
- See sample invitation letters in the Coming of Age Guidebook Appendices
- Remember that on the day of your coming-of-age event, you can remind them what the day is all about – your opening comments will set the tone for the rest of the day!