My first son was born in Montana. We went on our first hike when he was 2 weeks old. I started in the neighborhood, strapping him to my chest in the early morning.
It was a win-win: His mom got some uninterrupted sleep and Duke and I got our quiet, simple time together.
During our walks, I went back and forth between feeling a bright, lifting joy and moments of sharp anxiety. I had very little experience with humans that tiny, but we quickly found our rhythm. Within a few weeks, we started making the trek to the nearest mountain trail.
I will never forget those first few times in nature with Duke. I would pick up different items — pieces of sage brush, cedar leaves, or wildflowers — and place them in his tiny hand. I remember looking out at the sunrise and then down into his little eyes.
It was a sacred, life changing experience.
For a guy who’s dedicated his life to both the wilderness and redefining men’s mental health, it was a big deal for me.
My personal mission and ideals were suddenly deepened and made more imperative than ever.
Fast-forward to today. We had another boy (go figure!), and now my favorite pastime is strapping them both in the backpack and getting outside.
My oldest is certainly capable of hiking himself, but I still offer him a ride. I don’t want to let go of that intimacy.
The outdoors are a perfectly simple place to show my boys who I truly am. We play, we talk, we learn to listen to nature. It’s easy to relax and let the love come through.
The rest of life is not that simple.
I’ve worked with men and boys of all ages from many different backgrounds. I’ve seen firsthand the traumas, the hurts, and the struggles that boys and men have.
I’ve also been witness to how boys and men have hurt and damaged others.
It’s my work to help men heal themselves and be part of a larger cultural and community evolution. I see my parental responsibilities as an essential part of changing the paradigm of manhood and masculinity.
In all my work, I’ve come up with three straightforward principles that are missing in many men’s lives. I see these as fundamentally harmful to boys, but just as harmful to everyone and everything around them.
These principles don’t apply only to boys. Gender is only one part of it. These are human principles, but I’ve crafted them as promises to my boys.
In light of the current illumination of Black civil rights and the immense cultural change we’re undergoing, I have added a fourth, deeply personal promise.
1. My boys will have access to the tools needed to be emotionally healthy
I will do whatever it takes to see that repression is not my boys’ default strategy. They’re being taught to cry when they need to, ask for help when they need it, and express their anger and frustration in ways that are healthy.
They’re not being instructed to suck it up and “be a man.”
There are natural, constructive ways for them to learn and develop restraint and resiliency. My boys are legitimately tough in certain ways, but not at the price of their hearts.
The main method for this step isn’t to lecture or instruct, but to lead them by my own example. My boys experience my full truth. They see me cry, yell, dance like a madman, and show fear.
They see me demonstrate resolve and do incredibly hard things, and they also see me overwhelmed and in need of support.
So far, so good.
My boys have incredibly different communication styles, but both naturally and fully share a rich spectrum of feelings and emotions.
It feels right, and it feels good.
2. We will prioritize human connection and loving community
“It takes a village” is not some silly old saying.
I learned about this in the wilderness. The young men I worked with were troubled in many ways and for many different reasons. What I had to offer them was a simple, straightforward human connection with an adult that cared for them.
I was not a therapist or a teacher or a parent. I was a professional “older brother” figure who was there to simply listen, learn, and grow with them. It was a shoulder to shoulder relationship, and it really meant something.
More importantly, it was something they didn’t have.
Most of these boys didn’t have healthy, safe, reliable adults to go to. Their parents did their best, but I learned early on that parents aren’t enough. For most of these boys, mentorship and human connection were heartbreakingly rare.
I promise that my boys will not have to feel alone, or feel like life is solely on their shoulders.
I will do whatever I need to see that loving, trustworthy adults, elders, and peers are an important and large part of their life, because my boys will need far more than my wife and I will be able to deliver.
3. My sons will be honored for who they are
Their truth will be seen, recognized, and honored. I will not let societal roles overcome their own identity. They get to be them.
My sense is that this will always be a moving target, because I don’t see human identity as a set, stable thing.
If Duke grows up to be a nonbinary vegan astrologer, I’ll go on that ride with him. If Jude wants to be a conservative rodeo-riding gun advocate, I’ll be there. If that comes to pass, at least holiday dinners will be lively.
I don’t mean to be glib or stereotypical about this. I know this is far more subtle than the caricatures I mentioned. I recognize that the journey of knowing our own truth is scary, intense, and incredibly important.
It’s that journey — in its one thousand potential expressions — that I’m signing up for.
4. I will pull my head out of the sand and be an advocate for a better world
This is the most recent promise, prompted by the current moment of change for the Black community.
I’ve always worked to better our culture and this planet, but recent events have lifted many veils for me. I’m locating pockets of deep unawareness and ignorance in my own understanding of the world, and I’m sure there are plenty more.
I’m truly heartbroken as I begin to face the reality of others’ pain. I don’t yet know how this path will unfold for me or my family, but I’m committed to walking it.
These promises are not passive, and they require an immense amount of attention and hard work.
This is not the “hard work” that men are traditionally tasked to take on.
There’s nothing stereotypical about these promises, but my hope is that one day they might be.
Our boys — all of our kids — deserve to be raised with full access to their humanity. It’s my belief that the world needs this right now. Our young ones are headed into a world of remarkable uncertainty.
I believe these promises are a good start. It’s a simple human baseline to keep young minds and hearts intact, so they can grow into their fullest selves and do their part to better this world.