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Bonsai Boys and the Big Impossible


Do you remember the film Dances with Wolves?

It not only introduced Kevin Costner to the masses, but it also gave us a glimpse into the fascinating world of the indigenous peoples of North America, particularly the Lakota tribe from the central plains. The Lakota tribe has a descriptive term for adolescence: "The Big Impossible". It is an apt name as the goal of manhood can be seen out of reach when a boy is embroiled in the midst of adolescence. Often, boys in the modern age are tossed about in the deep turbulent waters of adolescence, vulnerable to the powerful crosscurrents of media pressure and cultural upheaval. Frequently, a boy's only companions on this journey are his peers who are as frightened and inexperienced as he is. We can learn from the Lakota tribe. Becoming a man is a great challenge and deserves the engagement of caring adults.

That is why I researched and wrote about Puberty Rites of Passage (PROPs) and the role they play in helping a boy become a man, in my book Boys Becoming Men: Creating Rites of Passage.  Even though the concept is an ancient one, the term "puberty rite of passage" was introduced by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in 1908. In his book published that year called Rites of Passage he described three stages of a puberty rite of passage

  • Separation (old status)

  • Liminality (no clear cut status: "betwixt and between")

  • Incorporation (new status)


This got me thinking many years ago as I was raising two boys of my own. Could it be that rather than "propping" up our boys during the intense years of adolescence, I could potentially be guilty of restraining their development and tying them down?

This question came to me following an afternoon bike ride with a friend who was interested in bonsai trees. He explained how the bonsai tree is prevented from maturing naturally. By using high tension wires and string, the gardener forces the tree to submit, retarding its growth, with the end result being a small, odd-looking tree. The tree is beautiful, but its attractiveness is partly because of the freakishness of its size. Bonsai is an art form, where the artist/gardener has full control over a living organism. He/she seeks to produce a tree that will arouse curiosity and interest.

Later, I wondered if the practice of growing bonsai trees is a metaphor for adolescence in the 21st century. Every day a boy imbibes a toxic cocktail made up of media-inspired notions of independence mixed with a huge amount of a powerful substance called testosterone. Now of course, an increasing measure of the male hormone is natural and to be expected, but in a myriad of ways the media potentially can subjugate the boy's value system and, instead of becoming independent and free, he becomes increasingly captured by notions of "cool". The result: boys going full-speed ahead physically while simultaneously experiencing the emotional jolts of the media pulling them this way and that, and this not-so-subtle combination works against gradual and healthy development. I believe, more than ever, that boys need a defining moment when they are not only welcomed into manhood but cross over knowing that there are now increased expectations of them.

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