As parents, we catch glimpses of awe in our young children’s eyes as they watch others experience rites of passage. At a wedding, children focus intently on the ceremony surrounding the bride and groom, imagining and possibly fearing when they may experience this day. As parents, we nurture reverence by raising our children in the church. Most churches have ceremonies for the three most common rites of passage, which include birth, marriage, and death.
How else might we cultivate opportunities to celebrate or “mark” when our children reach other important milestones in their lives? Perhaps your family has a favorite book, such as Lord of the Rings, that your child gets to read at the age of eleven or a favorite movie such as Star Wars at the age of seven. Or your children have a mother/daughter or father/son overnight retreat at the age of ten, go hunting with grandpa with their own hunting tags at the age of twelve, or have a big birthday party at the age of sixteen.
As a mother with a nineteen-year-old son and a fifteen-year-old daughter, perhaps I can help you rethink familiar rites of passage and give a suggestion or two for new ones. These three stand out in our family: baptism, the first dance, and church camp.
But first, there’s another question to ask. What’s the importance of “marking” rites of passage?
- Knowing about a future rite of passage builds patience, fortitude, and appreciation for the stage. The anticipation and longing strengthen the joy upon arrival.
- Designating a time and place allows time to stop and mourn the passing of the previous stage. We see this clearly with end-of-school closing ceremonies, graduations, weddings, and funerals.
- Marking a stage acts as a roadmap filled with signs pointing the way to a healthy life. It helps us to not skip an important step and keep our goals in the right order.
- Moving past an especially challenging stage helps us celebrate its completion and move on.
- Celebrating helps our children remember. These special events allow time for friends and family to shower our children with love. Our children become more confident as they receive words of affirmation, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service. Later in life, especially in moments of doubt, they’ll draw strength from these memories.
When our son Luke, and two years later our daughter, Anna Grace, were baptized in our Baptist church in the Texas Hill Country, we decided to make it a big celebration. We realized something was missing in how we had seen people celebrate baptisms. Why not make it bigger like a wedding? So, we sent out invitations to our extended family, close friends, teachers, pastors, and coaches. My husband and I provided drinks and Texas barbeque, and our guests brought the “fixin’s” and desserts.
Our church already had a beautiful way of baptizing. Everyone poured out through the church doors down the hill to the baptismal pool (a stone watering trough) where children climbed up high like Zacchaeus, either on the roof of the playhouse to the left or the tree whose limbs provided shade for the baptismal pool to the right. Adults and older kids spread around the pool and up the hill. Those being baptized wrote a testimony that someone special in his/her life read. Then, our pastor stood in the shimmering water, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we all watched in awe as the water rose and fell in waves around our beloved children and brothers and sisters in Christ.
And for our children, who were baptized a year apart but with the same reception, about fifty people gathered for the meal in our chapel. No one was in a hurry to leave. Our children opened gifts: the silver cross necklace with the mustard seed, a new Bible with the baptism dates recorded in the opening pages, and a card from a beloved third-grade teacher. Soon the kids were running freely on the playground and down the hill to the creek, and adults and older kids swapped stories. People took turns playing the piano. Our friends took pictures. These were days to remember!
A first dance can look quite different based on the music and location. When we moved to Montana in the summer of 2017, right away our children’s friends excitedly said they needed to attend the fall ball. Each ball has three hundred in attendance with the vision of providing a wholesome, cultural event where all people older than twelve, but specifically young adults, can socialize and learn dance etiquette to English countryside dancing.
This is an excellent opportunity for children to interact in a wholesome, pre-dating social environment. Dress is formal and modest with the rule that you find a new partner for each dance unless you are married or engaged. In the morning, there is a mandatory rehearsal to learn the dances, and by the evening, the dancers burst into applause and run to formation, as the next dance name, such as the “Postie’s Jig” or “Waves of Tory,” is called out.
Going away from home to church camp is another milestone we can celebrate. The times of greatest spiritual growth, both in my life and my children’s lives, have been while away on missions trips or church camps, especially when it included acts of service like building a church, teaching children, or repairing homes. I can still picture my best friend’s older sister coming home each year gushing about “what a blast” she had had on the mission camp to help repair homes. We counted down the years and months until we were fourteen and could go!
What made this camp so special? We were challenged to grow. Being away from home helped us try new and hard things, make new friends, and use our gifts to serve others. We worshiped and read our Bibles. Friends from school came, and with tears in their eyes on the last night, they shared how they wanted to follow Jesus, too.
I’ll never forget the day our workgroup joined an elderly lady on her shady porch after repairing her house outside in the hot Texas sun. As we shared lunch, she said we were an answer to her prayers. That filled me with awe and wonder of how the Holy Spirit brought me to bless her.
And just like me, my children have returned home from work week camps with faces shining and eagerness to share their stories of helping others, making new friends, playing fun games, singing beautiful songs, and gaining insight about God and themselves. They were more confident and independent. As a parent, you can watch for these opportunities, or perhaps you could suggest adding acts of service to your own church’s camp.
Blessings to you as you celebrate your children’s rites of passage!
Molly Frye Wilmington creates unique picture books using humor, animals, and suspense to explore more complex ideas of courage, faith, suffering, and love. Molly studied English and children’s literature at Baylor, ethics at Notre Dame’s Vita Institute, and theology at Duke. Originally from Texas, Molly now lives in Montana with her husband, David; their two children, Luke and Anna Grace; Oliver, the shepherd lab; and Ranger, the bearded dragon. The family enjoys soccer, hiking, music, and cracking up over each other’s clever stories. You can learn more about Molly and her latest children’s book, The Teacher Who Became a Spy at theteacherwhobecameaspy.com.