The speaker of "Rite of Passage" observes her son during his birthday party, interacting with other young boys his age. Young people often have to go through a rite of passage, or some kind of traditional, culturally significant test or experience. In this moment, the speaker wonders, what rite of passages will my son be subjected to? What tests must he pass?
As the speaker watches the children, including her son, she observes a common theme: violence as an accomplishment. The boys have been conditioned such that they believe they should physically and psychologically overpower one another, to assert their individuality, and prove their masculinity. The speaker's own son professes "We could easily kill a two-year-old." Further, the boys are depicted as "jostling, jockeying for place, small fights / breaking out and calming."
In conversational and physical challenges, the boys in the poem incessantly test one another. They subject one another to rites of passage: are you strong enough? Fast enough? Tough enough? The speaker comes to the sad and terrible conclusion that these extreme social expectations amount to "playing war, celebrating my son’s life." Olds intentionally juxtaposes the notion of a "celebration of life" to "war," to emphasize the vulgarity of such young children at a joyful event feeling compelled to play aggressively, even violently with one another.