Rite of passage and the child of divorce: How you can help


A few weeks ago, my step-grandchildren were visiting us. The eleven-year-old can’t wait until she turns twelve years old. Know why? So she can get a Facebook page. She also can’t wait until she is sixteen, so she can get her driver’s license.

Her parents are smart in declaring rites of passage for certain things. Many kids in our world today are impatient and can’t wait or don’t understand rites of passage. Wikipedia describes a rite of passage as “a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another.” Rites of passage help children feel special or accomplished in some area, whether that be age, talent, or maturity.

Perhaps your church has included rites of passage for the kids in your church family. You may not even realize you have these rites of passage, but the kids know it. For example, becoming an official teenager and getting to be in the youth group is a rite of passage for many kids. Being allowed to usher and work in the nursery for special events are looked upon as rites of passage.

When I owned my school-age program, we incorporated many rites of passage. If you were a kindergartner, you had to wait until you were in first grade to earn money credit to purchase treats at the snack bar. If you were in kindergarten or first grade, you had to wait until second grade to be on one of the animal committees. You could only be the manager of an animal committee if you were in fifth grade. And so it went, grade after grade.

One rite of passage that every kid in our program waited for was the privilege to sit in the “loft.” In one of our rooms, there was a loft that sat pretty high up off the floor. The kids had to be ten years old to be able to sit in the loft. They would count the days until their birthday when they could sit in the loft. It was a big deal to be able to climb up the ladder to the loft and sit there, looking over the room. On the morning of a child’s tenth birthday, I knew I would see him sitting in that loft.

Here are a few reasons children wanted to take part in this rite of passage:

  • It was a silly thing.
  • It was a fun thing.
  • It was a special thing.
  • It was a powerful thing.

A few weeks ago, on Facebook, I actually had a young man tell me, “I never made it into the loft. No fair. We moved before my tenth birthday.” After all these years, he still remembers the loft.

Divorce obliterates many rites of passage

Many children of divorce miss out on experiencing rites of passage. Divorce fractures families, and many times, family traditions and rites of passage are lost. It might be experiencing the first camping trip with your grandfather or getting to travel alone to visit a cousin in another state the summer of your thirteenth birthday. It could be the first shopping trip with a grandmother or a first pedicure with a special aunt.

Some rites of passage aren’t clearly laid out, but a child just knows that something special is going to happen at an event. An example from our family is getting to sit at the “grown-up” table at family get-togethers. As adults, we had no idea the kids thought this was a rite, and all the cousins talked about it at our family events.

Why rites of passage are lost

  • Mom moves out: Many girls just know that when it comes time for their first big dance, their mom will be there to take them shopping. If the teenage girl doesn’t live with the mom, the shopping trip never happens.Shave
  • Dad leaves: A teen boy knows that when it’s time to start shaving, his dad will be there to cheer him on. If the teenage boy doesn’t have a father in the home, he learns how to shave on his own.
  • Teens are left on their own: Teens don’t get that special bonding time with their parents. No one feels accomplished or special doing these things alone.
  • Extended family forgets: One family had a rite of passage for Christmas. When children graduated from high school, they were included in the adult-only Christmas party. After the divorce, the extended family didn’t invite one child to the Christmas party. What a sad disappointment after waiting all through high school to be considered adult enough to attend the adult-only Christmas event.
  • Finances change: In other situations, the divorce has changed the finances in the home. A child might look forward to that senior trip throughout middle school, but by the time he makes it to senior year in high school, his parents have divorced, and there isn’t enough money to fund the long-waited-for senior trip.
  • Child’s behavior: A child’s behavior might be another reason a rite of passage is lost. Many children of divorce have problems in school. It is not unusual for kids to lose a grade, drop out, or be assigned to an alternative school. The senior year comes along, and the teen is in an alternative school where there is no senior trip.

What you can do

  • Understand rites of passage are important to kids. Don’t discount the hurt kids feel when their rites are lost.
  • Help children of divorce understand why they might have lost a rite of passage.
  • Work with children and single parents to create a different rite of passage for an event.
  • Bring in mentors or mentoring families who can adopt the child of divorce into their family’s rites of passage.
  • Set up clearly defined rites of passage in your church, so children of divorce can feel part of the church family. These rites of passage should be for all children, not just children of divorce.
  • Pray with children about ways you can allow them to experience a rite of passage at your church just for them.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on July 31, 2014.

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