“Hey, Justin,” I yelled down to my 23-year-old son, who was hanging on the lower end of our climbing rope. “The view up here is unbelievable. Wait till you see it!” It was exciting to share a bonding moment with my son.
A few minutes later, we both gawked at the overwhelming beauty of the red sun setting behind distant peaks. We had just climbed to the 12,590-foot summit of Mount Conness, deep in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada range.
“This is one of the best days of my life!” Justin exclaimed.
I added deep gratitude to my surging emotions. Then announced an unfortunate reality check about climbing mountains. “We need to get off this peak as fast as possible before it gets too dark.”
Shouldering his pack, he just smiled. His hoots and hollers throughout the descent told me he was still having fun, despite a long hike out.
Adventure is epic
Staggering four hours through alpine darkness only added to our aptly titled “Conness epic.” We reached the car at 11 p.m. and felt ecstatic. We endured 3,000 feet of climbing, scrambling and rappelling.
We hiked seven hours up and back down mesmerizing terrain. But our full attention on each other and the task at hand. It was a dream come true for me. High adventure shared with Justin. Pushed hard, we loved every minute. No longer just father and son, we were partners enjoying each other’s company. As a result, sharing deeply throughout the journey and finding mutual admiration at completing a major challenge.
If you’re like me, you’re a dad who wants to bond with your kids in ways that matter. You want to make powerful memories together. You desire deep conversations free from life’s distractions. Fuse a little imagination with a willingness to push against our self-imposed limits, and we dads can connect with our kids in very powerful ways.
The wonder and intrigue of adventure
The list of adventurous things to do with our children is limited only by our imaginations: fishing, photography, kayaking, serving at a local shelter or soup kitchen, international travel, skiing, cross-cultural activities, canoeing, searching out special artifacts at a museum or building a chicken coop and raising chickens.
The key word here is adventure. Well-designed adventures offer:
- An acceptable and appropriate amount of risk and uncertain outcomes.
- The adventure has the potential to challenge and stretch our comfort zones.
- There are mutually agreed upon purposes and goals.
- Few to no distractions.
Adventure is inspiring
C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s heroic “Lord of the Rings” stir our imaginations with adventure. Biblical characters exude adventure. The history of the human race is indeed an inspiring and exciting adventure narrative. Perhaps God wired us to take risks with uncertain endings.
First, adventure, by definition, mandates risk and uncertainty in achieving certain objectives. If we absolutely know how something will turn out and that outcome is secure, there’s no adventure. Second, adventure expands our comfort zones together. Finally, it provides opportunities for us to focus on each other without distractions. Something we all need.
Ask your kids if they want to go on an adventure, and I’m confident in the same breath they will say yes and ask what it is. Young people long for adventure. They want their dads to help them experience it.
Adventure bonds through fun
Adventures often include fun and laughter. Dads and kids both are undertaking activities in less familiar and comfortable circumstances. That is to say, the awkwardness inherent in these endeavors makes everyone more “human.” Human beings can say and do very funny things when uncomfortable. For example, when a dad straps on a backpack for the first time, tries to attach a lure to a fishing line or lets a tarantula crawl up his arm at the local butterfly pavilion, his discomfort is often expressed with humor. In addition, children are also funny in new situations. The resulting dialogues will become part of that adventure’s shared memories.
Adventure bonds through laughter
I hear this discovery often on the Summit Adventure courses I lead as fathers are thrust into unfamiliar surroundings with their kids and other dad-child pairs. This humor helps children learn to interpret certain situations with levity. Laughter bonds dads and kids through many challenging activities such as local service work, international missions and cross-cultural participation. In addition, adding fun to adventurous endeavors strengthens the bonds between father and son or daughter.
Intense daily pressures characterize current life in the United States. In addition, young people spend over seven hours each day with electronic distractions. Humor, fun and laughter grow and thrive in environments free from excessive stress and abundant distractions. Minimize these in a bonding adventure, and kids and dads discover that each can be quite funny and lighthearted.
Adventure builds strong memories
Adventures have a similar format regardless of whether a dad-child duo is serving at a local shelter, weeding a new garden or learning how to sketch with charcoal. A common language develops around that particular adventure. For example, in the Conness climb with Justin, we used words like summit, slogging, rapping and belaying, which are now intertwined with the adventure. They describe particular things we said or did that immediately take us back to that amazing time. Therefore, incorporating these specific words and images into everyday life helps ensure the memories remain in our consciousness. Instead of them becoming relegated to distant parts of our brains.
That is to say, it is important that dads and their kiddos do the work it takes to keep memories fresh and strong over time. It takes only one to six months before adventures begin to lose their power without purposeful reminders. Regular anniversaries that involve celebrations, planned discussions, reviewing photos, slide shows and videos play crucial roles in remembering past adventures. Don’t forget the other ways people treasure experiences in their hearts and minds — symbols, artifacts, drawings and carvings. Making these memory tools age appropriate is important. However, don’t forget that even older kids and adults enjoy artistic expressions beyond photos and videos.
Keep the memories fresh
At Summit Adventure, we have participants write a self-addressed “letter” to themselves and leave it with us. Then we mail it six months later. The purpose is to let them read the letter and reflect back on all the experiences from that adventure. Dad can use this useful tool to solidify key memories of important, bonding, adventures done with their kids. Of course, pictures or art drawn could have the same effect as words written in a letter, especially for younger kids.
For instance, another way to keep the memories alive is to create a showcase on a “Wall of Adventure.” Dad-child duos can put together display cases containing mementos and artifacts from various adventures and place them in a prominent spot where family and friends can regularly view them. Of course, building these cases can become adventures in themselves, especially if neither partner has the skill to build them.
Adventure makes for powerful conversations
Outdoor adventure experiences are excellent opportunities for powerful, shared dialogues. It is easy to imagine how extended time without distractions would facilitate deeper bonding, interaction between fathers and children.
A well-done adventure has clear and agreed-upon goals and objectives. Discussing how well you both met these invites deeper-level sharing. Too often as children grow and mature, parents lag behind in treating them more like adults than little kids. For example, after nearly every Summit Adventure Duo Time (an extended period where dads and their kids just sit and talk), I hear many teenagers say, “This is the first important conversation I have ever had with my dad.”
Imagine that: 15 years gone by before a significant conversation between father and daughter or son! And all it took was some adventure mixed in with a purposeful time to talk. We can’t blame the lack of this kind of dialogue only on dads because children are every bit as distracted and stressed as their parents. Consequently, as parents in over-busy homes, we can too often miss the fact that kids are maturing.
Ideas for Adventure
Head out to a coffee shop, go for a walk together, sit in a quiet room free from interruption, take a drive, go for a paddle in a canoe, sit on a hillside, get up before everyone else — all these are special times in which to celebrate the moment. Above all let each other know you deeply value the conversation.
Set the standard that conversations are more important than phones, computers or games by making sure you minimize or eliminate disruptions. That is to say, simply not carrying a phone during the adventure, and then having a conversation afterward without placing the phone on the table, will expand comfort zones and improve relationships.
Adventure is worth the risk
Adventure is a tie that binds. It has a long history inextricably woven into the fabric of human relationships. Our society needs an adventure refresher, and certainly dads with their kids can undertake a wide variety of challenging, uncertain and purposeful endeavors that strengthen the bonds between them.
The Conness epic my son and I shared has fueled many conversations these past three years and improved our relationship ever since. For example, our talks have deepened, our laughter flows and we continually seek to create a wide variety of endeavors that have built-in adventure. Furthermore, we recently went snorkeling and exploring in Costa Rica, which provided a wealth of memories and important conversations while pushing us both to snorkel — an activity well out of our comfort zones. Our mutual (and ridiculous) fears about the ocean created much laughter and humor that strengthened the connections between us.
Allow yourself the freedom to risk new behaviors and activities with each of your kids. Like floundering in a different-speaking culture where the locals appreciate your efforts to speak a little of their language, your children will appreciate your attempts to take on new and uncomfortable challenges with them. In conclusion, be ready to laugh, memorialize and talk about every adventure, because that’s where you’ll reap great rewards in bonding with your children.