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The Tribe and ancient rites of passage from being a boy to a warrior and how society is failing modern day men.

The following presentation is on the work of Arnold van Gennep an early 19th century Anthropologist and focusses on some aspects of human development that I personally feel we have lost as a society in the present day. In particular this presentation is talking about how boys in tribes were raised into men and even warriors.

This presentation is aiming to create a foundation of understanding about where modern society is currently failing men. It is not intended to be taken literally but to help raise awareness about the concepts these rights of passage were based around, which remain valid nonetheless.

In particular two tribes that can be researched further are the African Maasai and the ancient Greek Spartans. Though there are more tribes that have their own rights of passage that can be researched too.

What is a Rite of Passage?
Traditionally, a rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group. The concept of the rite of passage explores and describes various other milestones in an individual’s life when their social status is forever altered.

Initiation rites are a natural and necessary part of a community, just as arms and legs are an extension of the human body. These rites are paramount to the development of an individual as well as the community.

Most of the ancient rites of passage can be separated and classified into five groups. Rite to Birthright, Rite to Adulthood, Rite to Marriage, Rite to Eldership and Rite to Ancestorship. Although there are five different rites of passage, they can more or less be distilled down to three steps: Separation, Transition, and Reincorporation.

The initial stage of the traditional rite of passage is the separation. During this phase an initiate is separated, either literally or figuratively, from his or her former life. During the separation phase, the individual’s past is expelled as the initiate prepares a new life.

Before the separation stage in tribal life, was that of the infant and pre teen child phase of life. During these early years the children would spend most of their time with the mothers and other women being nurtured, but also being involved in daily tasks such as helping with cooking or activities that the women of the tribe were responsible for. The children would not be raised by one woman alone, but by a group as a whole being overseen by the matriarchs of the tribe who had more experience. 

During this stage the men of tribe would not be overly involved with the raising of the child, but would still have involvement when they returned from whatever activities they were doing throughout the day. This is when the father/son bonding would take place. This is important to not because below the ages of 8/9 the nurturing aspect of raising boys and girls was very similar. Likewise having more than just one woman involved in the raising of the children, in particular an older and more experienced matriarch would help to balance out the aspect of inexperience of the young mums and potential overprotective/biased attitude towards their direct offspring. It’s also interesting to note that the education aspect correlates directly with the role required of that tribe as a unit, as opposed to a school which has not direct relation to the children that attend.

The separation stage would take place around the age of 8/9 years old but even younger of around 6 or 7 years in the Spartan tribe. This first right of passage would be marked by a ceremony where the women of the tribe would hand the boys over to the men. In some instances but not all, the boys would not spend any time with the women of the tribe until the final right of passage on their return, but in all cases the main raising of the young boys would now be done by the men.

During this time spent with the men of the tribe, the boys would be taught how to hunt, build, scavenge and defend themselves. The young boys would be around older male members who they could look up to and take advice from. They would learn first hand what it takes to survive and go through experiences which were tough, but ultimately served the purpose of building them into warriors that could look after their tribe. At this point the boys would also learn important fundamentals about respect whilst having firm boundaries put in place by the older stronger male members of the tribe, which ultimately would keep them in line.

The second stage of the traditional rite of passage is the transition. During this phase, the initiate is in a state of transformation, or for the faithful, limbo. The individual is no longer part of his or her old life, but not yet fully inducted into a new one. The transition is usually marked by a series of tests deeming whether the initiate is worthy of this new life.

Once the first stage of the boys training was complete and they reached around the age of 16, the boys would have to face the second yet what could be considered the most difficult but important stage. 

At this point with the boy now what could be considered young men, they would be sent off to survive in the wild on their own for a period of time, often around 3 months. During this time they would have to put to use all of the skills that they had learnt from the training they had received during the preceding years. If the boys returned alive, they would officially be classed as a man, if they returned with a dead tiger they would be officially classed as a ‘warrior’.

This stage would no doubt have been one that was very scary and fraught with danger, but the process of leaving everything they know and feeling the fear and going through it, would ultimately enable the psychological transformation from boy to man, equipping them with tools they need to provide and protect to ensure the continued survival of their tribe. 

The third and final chapter for the initiate is reincorporation. After the individual proves himself or herself worthy through a series of tests, the initiate is welcomed back into society and given a grand celebration of their new life.

The final stage once the boys had returned would involve another ceremony of mass celebration, congratulating them on their achievements and initiating them into the adult roles of the tribe. This celebration would honour the young men and make them feel a valued member of the tribe. They would feel secure in their purpose and take pride in serving their community.

In some instances the men would only be allowed to marry and father children themselves once they had passed this stage, which is interesting because it ultimately denotes that the man has shown he has what it takes to be a good father. 

During all phases of the process, the elders who have previously gone through the ritual themselves guide the young initiate on his or her journey. By controlling the rite of passage, the community decides when a boy becomes a man, a girl becomes a woman, or a civilian becomes a soldier.


Bringing the rights of passage to modern day
What is important to note in regards to the old tribal rights of passage, is that as a society we have progressed far from what could be judged by modern day standards as quite a brutal/barbaric way of raising young men. 

Things such as being sent off into the jungle to survive for months, not being something that should be advocated for today. There are however some key take away points from it which we should implement into how we raise modern day men.

  • There needs to be a solid social structure for boys to spend time with positive male role models, ones that not only nurture but provide leadership and adequate boundaries.
  • That a process in the form of rites of passage could be implemented, allowing boys to progress along and be celebrated for.
  • That being too protected from the reality of life only inhibits emotional growth, and there is a need for some pain and suffering for this to be achieved. Just not to the extent that it causes developmental trauma. Psychological strength needs to be built over time.
  • There are key biological physical and psychological differences between males and females which need to be taken into account when raising a child. Differences which if not accounted for can lead to a whole array of issues.
  • Men need to be honored for the role they play in their community.
  • Modern day education from nursery to university could be partially considered this, but it is limited in terms of who can succeed (e.g neuro-divergence), and does not focus on psychological/emotional development. (Hunter vs Farmer theory).
  • The focus on nurture appears to becoming the dominant driving force in educational and school policies, with leadership and character building appearing to have taken a back seat.
  • Boys need that positive masculine influence in order to develop into emotionally mature and capable adults.

Men NEED to be honoured for the role they play in their community

We currently have a set up in Britain and much of the western world where in many ways, the role of providing for the family (traditionally a male role) has been taken over by the government/state. 

Whilst this is a good step forward and enables many children to have their basic needs met and looks after women, Broken homes have become an all too common theme, with many boys being raised by single mothers. Leading to a gaping chasm of leadership and discipline left in its wake. Absent fathers play a role in this too, but this is a separate subject for another article.

The boys of today are growing up in a system where they are not getting the right balance of nurture vs leadership. All too often they are getting to their teenage years, not having had the right discipline put in place when they were younger, and becoming too physically big and strong for their mothers to control. 

They are also falling in a category where they cannot be dealt with the law sufficiently as they are classified as minors, yet they have no methods of dealing with them at home or by the authorities either. 

Under current child protection legislation, unless they are at risk from danger from an adult or to themselves, the issues such as lack of boundaries at home and even abuse to the parent are massively overlooked. Authorities regularly fail to take proactive measures to deal with this area.

The young men, looking for a sense of connection and belonging, whilst simultaneously wanting to emulate those that they see and having strength and power, turn to gangs and criminal activity. There is also the aspect of poverty that plays into this, often motivated by wanting to take care of their mother and siblings when they see her struggling financially, combined with wanting status and power in their community. Often surrounded by a whole community of people who only know crime as a way to succeed, these young boys never acquire true aspirations to aim towards.

They then continue along this path to where they become adults and then get incarcerated as criminals, which all too often by this point is too late for them. Many of the current issues we are seeing with gang, gun and knife crime could be prevented by intervening at an earlier stage.

What needs to be done now is a solution implemented that bridges the gap between those vital early years of nurture to one that guides young boys along the path to being a man.

The problem around this is that in many scenarios, the only way this could be achieved is by creating positive alternatives to youth offending institutions that focus on development rather than punishment..

When a man has not learnt to control his emotions

  • Hair trigger temper (resulting in unnecessary fights).
  • Insane jealousy leading to controlling behaviour and stalking.
  • Alcohol, drug abuse and binge eating, seeking to smother their feelings.
  • Emotionally insecure people who require constant validation leading to manipulative behaviours.
  • Narcissistic and neglectful parenting.
  • Abusive behaviours.


  • We need to develop solid social paths for men that are inclusive and lead to recognition.
  • We need to develop men psychologically and emotionally, building resilience and self control.
  • We need early interventions that recognise and deal with these issues before they reach the criminal stage.
  • We need education the be more inclusive around different learning styles and needs so that more have a chance to succeed. 
  • More education around trauma (generational) and working with families to heal and transcend from it.
  • We need to incorporate more positive male role models into the education system that focus on the social/emotional aspect of development rather than just academic achievement.
  • Boxing and martial arts training works directly with a mans drive for dominance and provides a safe channel and outlet for expressing these tendencies.
  • These sports can also be used as a mechanism for achieving rights of passage stages e.g training (separation), competing (transition), recognition of achievement on completion.

In conclusion

  • This is not a full solution, the problem is complex and  requires a multifaceted approach.
  • Socio-economic, cultural and political factors all play a part
  • Fixing it begins by creating a strong foundation for  raising young men and an understanding of what young men need.
  • Common values for community/society need to be established and worked towards.
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Case study – Shelly

*Name changed for confidentiality reasons*

Shelly was a 16 year old female who I worked with for a period of approximately 6 months. The aim of the provision was to support her integration at a new part time college placement that was different from her usual school. She was placed at the college due to her struggling to manage at the school full time, and was close to being transferred due to not being able to meet her needs. Therefore it was incredibly important that her integration at the college worked out.

Shelly was a young person who suffered from complex trauma, mainly related to incidents involving childhood abuse and neglect. She was put into foster care around the age of 6 with her twin sister. Shelly would sometimes identify as a male and develop attractions towards members of the same biological sex as her. 

Shelly would generally present herself as an amicable person, but would frequently exhibit bouts of extreme rage that would arise from any perceived injustice and could become violent towards her peers. Shelly would also be prone to anxiety, self harm and suicidal threats, regularly contacting child line stating she was going to commit suicide.

Shelly exhibited aspects of fantacism, sometimes appearing to have conversations with people or entities that were her ‘imaginary friends’ as she put it. Shelly had an extremely vivid imagination and by no means lacked intelligence. She had a good understanding of trauma but would often use this to her advantage, often to make up elaborate stories about why she could not do something (which were usually school work related). 

One time she mentioned that she could not draw a circle because it reminded her of a bubble, and a bubble reminded her of being aged 6 witnessing abuse in her house, during which time, she would imagine a protective bubble around her. (This was all avoidance to doing school work, as I had seen her draw circles on numerous other occasions).

During my time with Shelly assisting her at college, she made massive progress in terms of her ability to emotionally regulate, along with her engagement with her education.

One of the main strategies that was used with Shelly was remaining extremely consistent when it came to enforcing boundaries and expectations. Shelly would often attempt to manipulate staff that worked with her by using an array of methods. There were 3 main behaviors she would use to try and achieve this. The first was by being very charming (usually after being in trouble and wanting to get out of it), the second was crying and apparent emotional breakdowns and the third was anger and insults. These could also be exhibited in any combination and any order and in any time frame.

These behaviors would often arise due to fairly minor situations, such as wanting to use her i-pad (which became a useful tool for issuing consequences) or not wanting to go to her lesson.

Whether she would try to use charm, anger or sadness to get her way, the boundaries set and expectations were still upheld. This was done by remaining calm and centered along with providing empathy to her feelings, whilst remaining firm to the outcome expected, so that she would learn that whatever she threw at me, it would not take me off my center. This allowed for her trust to grow in me as a capable adult she could depend upon to lead her through the trials and tribulations of life she faced. I would also at times make use of humour to either elevate her mood, and even to get her too situations from a different perspective.

To begin with there were numerous situations where Shelly would not be happy at not getting her own way, but over time she began to understand that I would not be swayed by emotional manipulation and her behavior became much more balanced and stable. (Note: This is not to say she consciously chose these behaviors, but more that they were learned in order to get her needs met as she grew up).

Other scenarios would occur where she would do things such as show off scars on her wrists or flash a razor blade she had stolen from a pencil sharpener, boasting (with a smirk on her face) how she was going to use it to cut herself. I soon recognised and understood that much of her behavior was mostly linked to gaining attention and reactions. My method for dealing with this was not to provide much reaction at all. I would still tell her that seeing her hurt herself was not funny or cool to me, and to remove the razor blade off her if she had one, but to generally give it no further attention. Again over time instances such as this became less frequent.

When it came to situations that involved helping her to process her trauma I used methods such as drawings/cartoons and brainstorming to help understand and figure out what she was feeling and to put things into perspective. A large part of the work around this was done on helping her to let go and move on from the past. She had a lot of unresolved feelings regarding her relationship with her birth mum, and was unable to visualize a positive future whilst she clung to the past. I helped her to step outside of the mother/daughter relationship paradigm through which her perception was tainted, and instead see her mother and an individual who probably had a difficult upbringing herself, and was an individual with her own issues and floors. This helped Shelly to begin to remove her lack of self worth from how she was treated by her birth mother.

I identified that she displayed what is known as psychological ‘splitting’ which is a form of black and white thinking. This is generally where someone thinks of someone else as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ depending on the circumstances and can change numerous times throughout the day depending on the circumstances. This tends to be a behavior prone to people with personality disorders such as Borderline personality disorder (BPD).

In order to de-escalate or diffuse emotional outbursts before they began, I employed techniques from the which is a communication style aimed at disarming verbal confrontations from people who suffer from BPD. (I would like to mention that BPD was not officially recognised in people under 18 until recently, and Shelly has no diagnosis of it, but regardless her behavior was congruent with that of someone who suffered from it, and the techniques for helping to manage it worked.) Using the techniques shown in the Nicola method enabled me to not get drawn into the numerous attempts at starting an argument she often tried to start. It also enabled me to remain calm and unswayed by the things she said to me.

I also performed some mini workshops with her focussing on subjects around emotional intelligence and self management. To complement this I taught her ‘Emotional Freedom technique (EFT) which involves tapping various pressure points around the body, whilst simultaneously repeating a positive mantra of affirmation, and help the person to release the emotional energy trapped in the body. 

The final aspect I worked on with Shelly was helping her to manage/overcome her anxiety and not let it control her life. This was mainly done by encouraging her to act with courage and to take small steps outside of her comfort zone, gradually taking bigger ones as time went on. Shelly made massive progress with this over the course of 6 months, from initially not being able to bring herself to attend any lessons without me supporting her, or being the center of attention in a social setting (such as talking to a group) to being able to attend all lessons without me and even playing a small part in circus performance put on by her school.

Shelly successfully integrated into her college placement, and since went on to attend there full time after my intervention ceased.

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Case study – Sean

*Name changed for confidentiality reasons

Sean who was at a young man aged 15 who was on the brink of being expelled from his school for consistent disruptive behavior including rudeness and aggression to teaching staff. He also had mild involvement in drug dealing and regularly smoked cannabis.

Over a period of 6 months the mentor from the BE A Warrior Foundation performed mentoring and boxing sessions with him. The sessions would involve picking him up from school and taking him to the local boxing gym. The boxing sessions gave the mentor key insights into how he handled things such as being stressed or not being able to perform the skills showed to him. This also enabled the mentor to talk to him about these insights in a way he could understand due to experiencing them himself. Sean realized how unfit he was due to smoking cannabis, so he decided to stop.

The mentor discussed with Sean about his attitude towards teachers and the aspirations he had for himself. He was given strategies to manage his anger more effectively and how to respond to teachers when they told him off along with tools to avoid situations escalating that would get him in trouble.

Sean put these strategies to use and managed to avoid being expelled, he ended up passing his GCSE’s and ended up going on to college.

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Case study – Craig

*Name is changed for confidentiality reasons.

Craig was a young man aged 15 who had not been in education for over 2 years. He regularly suffered from explosive episodes of rage, smoked cannabis and was involved in low level drug dealing with county lines.

Over the period of 8 months our mentor from the BE A Warrior Foundation (BAWF) managed to get him into boxing training and he stopped smoking cannabis. Craig also decided that he no longer wanted to sell drugs and stopped hanging around with the others who were involved in it. 

The mentor helped him find the direction he wanted to head in life and managed to convince him to go back to school. Due to his school being in a different county the mentor had to drive him to school. He also would only attend if the mentor was with him. He even referred to his mentor as his ‘Dad’ on one occasion.

Craig in the end managed to gain his foundation GCSE’s in Maths and English and has now gone on to college.

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