Yesterday, I shared the amazing “rite of passage” year my son experienced when he was thirteen. What prepared Jonathan for that year, was a trip we took just prior to the experience. I let both of my kids choose a place they wanted to visit when they turned twelve. Each could pick anywhere in the world and travel with me to see it. Once there, we would have fun visiting sites together, but the trip would end with some meaningful talk time.
Jonathan chose Minneapolis, Minnesota. I know it may sound strange, but at the time he was into Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America, and there was a particular show that was playing in that city he wanted to see. So we did both of those gigs.
On the last day of our four-day trip, I told Jonathan we were going to drive up near one of the lakes in the area. We weren’t going to do the Mall or a show. He knew something was up and wasn’t sure if he liked it. I pulled into a parking lot in our rental car, and stopped next to the water. Then, I turned to my son and said, “Jonathan, let’s trade places.” I paused. “I want you to get behind the wheel of this car and drive around the parking lot a bit.”
He was stunned, especially because he is a bit of a rule-keeper. “Dad -- no! I am only twelve. I can’t drive.” I smiled and encouraged him that I would only have him drive around the parking lot for a few minutes. “Dad -- I can’t. I’m not big enough. This isn’t good. Mom will not like this, dad. Mom will not like this!”
When I finally talked him into it, he slipped into the driver’s seat with fear and trembling. He slowly backed out, trying to imitate all he had seen me do over the years. Soon, it became fun for him. He’s a boy -- and like most boys, driving a car eventually became natural and enticing. He was actually quite good at it. I had to stop him after a few minutes. It was after this experience that a meaningful conversation ensued.
I said, “Jonathan -- how did you feel when you first took the wheel?” He was honest. He acknowledged that he was panicked. Terrified that he couldn’t do it. Then I said, “But you found out that you could do it after all, didn’t you?” When he agreed, I went on. “Jonathan, those feelings are exactly what you’ll be feeling as you enter manhood. You will think you can’t do it; you don’t know what you are doing and you won’t want anyone to know how you’re feeling. Being a man is a lot like taking the wheel of a car. You are no longer a passenger in life. You are a driver and you are responsible to get to a destination -- and to get the passengers in your car safely there as well. Growing up means becoming a driver instead of a passenger. (This is one of the Habitudes®.)
Next, we drove over to a graveyard, where we walked among the gravestones for several minutes in silence. (Jonathan thought it was morbid at first.) Afterward, we talked about the words that were on the tombstones. Single phrases described the people buried in that graveyard. They each got just one sentence. After reflecting on them, we began to talk about the sentence we would want others to remember us by. What would our sentence be if we just got one? It was a profound conversation, even for a twelve-year-old.
That trip involved conversations, experiences, examples, and evaluation. Years later, it is fun to observe him. He has remembered that year well. In fact, I often reflect on that year we met together with those other dads and sons. As I watched my son bloom that year, by being exposed to healthy, male leaders in our community, I remembered a conversation Jonathan and I had when he was just seven-years-old. He was in a stage of his life where he liked trying on my shirts, ties, belts, and especially my shoes. One day, he walked into my bedroom closet and found a pair of my shoes. He slipped them on, and they were obviously too big for him. “Dad, I will never fit into these big things,” he told me.
I responded by telling him that his doctor predicts he will grow taller than I am and weigh more than I weigh. “You will fill shoes bigger than those,” I concluded. His eyes got large. He smiled as he thought about it. Then he spoke boldly into the air: “I’m going to be bigger than my dad!” “That’s my hope, son. That’s my hope.”