This playful-seeming poem contains wonderfully fun imagery, as the boys stand around, clearing their throats like little bankers. What has alwasy struck me about this poem, however, is the war-like imagery: the cake looks like a turret; the boys are refered to as generals; and their talk turns to a debate on what age child they might have the strength to kill if put to that test. The "rite of passage" is certainly one from childhood to manhood, but I think Olds wants us to recognize that the capacity for violence -- the taste for it, even -- is evident in boys at a young age.
The poem "rites of passage", by Sharon Olds, depicts the birthday party of her first grade son. As the poem goes on, one can see the metaphoric imagery laid in to resemble the coming of age for a man. Men will have "hands in pockets" as "they stand around jostling, jockeying for a place" in the world.
The poem, for me, seems to be one which pokes fun at the assumptive role a man must play when surrounded by other men. This being said, the boys here are learning at a young age that they must fill the role early so as not to lose their self-recognized place in society.
The poem does not speak to the norm in regards to a first grade birthday party. Instead, it speaks to the rite of passage that a boy must take to become a man.