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Ditch the Parenting Manual: The ROI of a Father-Son Rite of Passage

I love my Dad but he wasn’t around a lot when I was growing up.

I know now that he was working hard to take care of his family. 

But I missed his presence and connection when I was a little boy. 

When my sons were born, I was determined to be an active masculine presence in their lives. 

I have spent the past few months creating a Rite of Passage weekend for my oldest son, to prepare him as he turns 12 and starts middle school.   

Along with two other dads, we took our sons to my friend’s ranch. 

We spent the day getting in touch with nature, being in our bodies and seeking the wisdom of our elders and our ancestors. 

In the morning we cleared the land. 

It was tough work in 90º California heat. But the boys were thrilled to be allowed to use a machete and an ax. 

We wanted them to experience the joy and challenge of hard work. 

And they worked really hard. 

Cultures across the world use heat to cleanse and purify the body and mind. Saunas in Finland. Turkish baths, or hammams. Japanese Onsen (hot springs) and sento (public baths). Mayan Temazcal in Central America.

And in the afternoon, under the guidance of a Guatemalan Shaman, we built a traditional sweat lodge with saplings. 

As night began we gathered inside the dome-shaped sweat lodge. 

Two men in their 70s, three 12 year olds and several men from their 20th to their 50th decade. 

The Shaman told stories and sang songs and we joined in, between sessions of heat and steam, as hot rocks were brought in and water was poured onto them. 

When the session was complete, we walked out into the cold desert night air in our swim shorts.

We poured buckets of cold water over one another. 

Invigorating is an understatement!

Once we were warm and dry, we began to set up the boys for the next stage of their challenge.

The Shaman explained that a rite of passage in some Indigenous cultures, primarily Native American and First Nations communities, often includes a vision quest. 

For adults, this involves a period of isolation, fasting, and deep reflection, in the wilderness, with the goal of receiving spiritual guidance. 

As they were 12, the elders in their lives were creating something similar but less intense. It was designed to feel a little edgy. It wasn’t supposed to be comfortable. And we had their backs. They were safe. 

The other two dads and I walked our sons up the hill.

We set up their hammocks and sleeping bags and pointed out the fire we had all built earlier.  

We told them that we would be taking shifts to stay up watching them all night. But they would be alone in the wilderness.  

We gave them simple instructions: 

Stay awake as long as you can. 

Look at the stars in the night sky. 

And don’t leave your hammock, we’ll be back in the morning. 

It was a transformational experience for us as fathers, looking into the darkness all night and holding space for our sons. 

It was even more transformational for our sons, who faced their fears and slept the night under the stars, with no tent and no adults next to them.  

That morning as we fathers strolled up the hill to meet our sons, you could feel the pride in our hearts. 

As we strolled down the hill, next to our sons, you could feel the pride in theirs. 

I am in the transformation business. 

And it was an honor to create a transformational experience for my own son. 

What I didn’t expect was the impact the weekend would have on the other men.

Every man there spoke to me privately to tell me how healing the experience had been for them. 

The 70 year old had lost his father at 3 years old. Other men had dads who were loving but absent fathers. It was a beautiful experience for all of us – including me – to heal our inner child.

And the world turns…

By chance we held this Rite of Passage on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

When the shaman blew a conch shell, I explained how similar it sounded to the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet used by ancient Jews in religious ceremonies and as a battle signal, now sounded at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

With divine timing, it turned out that one of the men assisting the shaman was Jewish and had a shofar in his car. 

Later that day, I got to usher in the New Year with a shofar in the desert. 

It was a very meaningful moment for me. 

Back at home, this morning, a photo on a shelf in my office caught my attention. 

The photo has sat there for almost a decade but I haven’t noticed it in years.  

It’s a photo of my friend Rafa. He was a founder member of 4PC and he was killed in a tragic accident in Egypt, exactly 8 years ago this week.  

He’s blowing a conch shell for me and Kaleo. 

Shalom, Rafa. 

Love. Rich 


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