Field Notes

Mentoring Our Sons

Oct 9
Mentoring Our Sons
Posted October 9, 2013

Occasionally I am contacted by a father who wants to participate with his son on an expedition. I am usually wary of this situation due to fractured father-son relationship so prevalent in our culture today.  The worst ones are when the father wants to fix his son, not realizing the depth of the role that he has played in damaging the relationship and his son’s character development.  Occasionally though, when the father arrives with an open heart, the experience can be one of positive mutual growth.

Recently a father (let’s call him Bill) and his son (Ben) joined us on a project in the wilds of Wyoming. Bill had grown up in a construction company and owned his own business. You might say that it was in his blood.  Ben is Bill’s youngest of 4 sons. At 20 years of age he is intelligent and fairly strong and athletic. But he lacked confidence and Bill knew it.

Bill spoke with an enthusiasm about his construction company that was only matched by his fervor for the Catholic faith. He frequently mentioned his oldest son and how involved and interested that he was in the family business. He spoke with great pride of how his oldest son would take control of situations and get the job done. He also shared with me that his older sons were frustrated with Ben because of his lack of initiative, and how on many occasions the older brothers, tired of waiting for Ben to start or finish a project, would jump in and do it for him. When Bill asked Ben what he intended to do following college, he said “Well I guess I’ll just come back home and work for the family construction business.”

Our project on this expedition was the restoration of about a mile of deeply water rutted trail. It included moving and placing large rocks for steps and water diversion structures, hauling 4 gallon buckets of gravel from a creek bed 100 yards away, and cutting deep channels for future water control.

On the first day of trail work I gave a brief explanation of the work and tried imparting a vision of what the trail would look like when it was finished. And then, I turned the men loose on it, stood back and watched what transpired. Wilderness trail work is a great laboratory for watching how men think, approach problem solving, lead, follow and build relationships. 

It didn’t take long to see the symptoms and causes of Ben’s problems. Bill continually placed himself at the center of the work while Ben stood to the side and watched. At one point 4 men, including Bill and Ben, were moving a very large rock. This can be dangerous work and it appeared that Bill was “protecting” Ben by positioning himself to do the more dangerous heavy lifting, even though Ben was physically stronger and more capable than his 58 year old father. On several occasions during the long difficult bucket and gravel work, Bill jumped in front of Ben so that Ben ended up doing less work than all the other men. This scenario was repeated throughout the day. At one point as I watched Bill walk away with Ben’s buckets full of gravel I said to Ben “Don’t let that old man take your buckets from you anymore.” And he didn’t.

Early the next morning Bill approached me while Ben and the other men slept. “Ben isn’t having a very good week. He is disappointed. He spoke of leaving. He isn’t getting into the work very well. He is standing around a lot.” Do you have any suggestions? “Yes I do. To start with we need to split the two of you apart. Do you realize how you interject yourself into his work?” I asked. “Well yes, I guess I do. I guess I am trying to help him and protect him too much.” “Yes you are and to a fault.” I replied.

That day I put Ben with Justin, one of our more experienced men and closer in age, and made sure that Bill was working several hundred yards away so that he was removed from the near occasion of his temptation. At the end of the day I ask Justin in confidence how it went with Ben. “Well, maybe better than yesterday, but he stands around and watches a lot. He doesn’t seem to jump in.”  

The early the next morning Bill approached me again. “How’s it going with Ben?” I asked. “Well maybe a little bit better but he still is feeling isolated and not of much help.” “Well ok then; today he will work with me.”

I have several theories about men and work. One of them is that the work needs to be much bigger than the man, the team or the time to complete it. Another is that at the end of the day a man needs to look onto his work with a sense of accomplishment that he has carved a foothold in that seemingly insurmountable challenge.

The work that Ben and I attacked together that day was enough for 3 or 4 men. We started with 12 pound sledge hammers on a large granite boulder sunk deep and projecting 16” up into the trail causing a hoof and tripping hazard for mules and horses. We first took 10-15 swings a piece and then 20. Within a few minutes we were encouraging one another to 35. Ben was seeing how the rock would break as he hit it from different angles. Within the hour we had it broken down below the trail. During that day, the two of us moved large rocks, hauled buckets of gravel and rebuilt trail. I encouraged Ben to do the heavy lifting, I challenged him to outwork me, I asked him for his opinion.

The next day was even better. I gave Ben a trail project of his own; 50 yards of trail littered with fallen trees, boulders and heavy rutting. I spent a few minutes helping him visualize the critical path and the final outcome. Bill walked by with a concerned look on his face. When Bill was beyond hearing distance I said “Ben this is your project. If your father comes back and starts to offer his help, tell him thanks but you have it under control. In the meantime I will be 100 yards up the trail working on my own project. If you need any help let me know.”

At the end of the day Bill anxiously walked back toward camp and through Ben’s project. The area had been transformed. The large trees were cross cut sawed and removed; water diversion structures in place, and the trail rebuilt. Bill approached me as I took an inventory of the work we accomplished that day. He reached out his hand and said “I really want to thank you and Justin for helping Ben get all that work done”. I looked back at him matter of factly stating “We didn’t help him. He did it all himself.” Bill was stunned. “You’re kidding?” he exclaimed with a smile originating in dismay and pride.

Early the next morning , Bill once again was the second man up,  “How’d it go last night?” I asked him. “I’ve not seen him like this before. He was excited. He talked about the work and other things till about 1am. What you did with him reminded me of what it was like when my oldest son was young. We spent hours together in the workshop. He asked questions. I patiently showed him how to work. I had forgotten about that.”

God made man with three fundamental desires; the search and discovery of truth, the desire to create and the desire to fight for justice against the forces of evil. Postmodern man, pursuing these through the lens of original sin, has  followed the sirens call toward self-gratification and isolation, leaving his family, wife, daughters and sons behind to fend for themselves. The most important work for men of the Church today is learning how to model and mentor fatherhood and authentic Catholic manhood for our sons and other men. If we learn how to do this work wisely and well, we will begin seeing the turn of the tide of the battle.

On the last evening in the wilderness around the campfire, Bill was struggling again with the Liturgy of the Hours. Ben leaned over his father’s shoulder and said “I see what the problem is dad, may help?” Then Ben quietly explained the flow of Evening Prayer, the antiphons and readings while Bill looked on. The cold mountain air smelled like Ponderosa pine, the Evening Star rose in the east while Jupiter set in the west. “Thanks son, you really picked this up quickly.”


John Bradford is the founder of Wilderness Outreach. If you would like to learn more contact John at