The biggest thing I remember about my teenage years is that I was actually not very happy.
I struggled, I didn’t feel part of the group and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. I feel like I had two lives as a teenager; one that my parents knew about and one that they didn’t know about. It was a difficult time for me. There was really no one to turn to. I think that is the reason why I do the work that I do now. I started working as a doctor, but in 1994, I went to a men’s program that was very powerful. There were a lot of men of all different ages, who all seemed to be struggling with similar things around what it meant to be a man, how to be a good father, how to be a partner and when we were finally going to work out what we really want to do with our lives!
We all said, “Wow, if there had been something for us when we were teenagers, it could have been different.”
And so, some of the men on that program decided to run a program for teenagers and I was involved in the first one – where we involved 28 men and boys. Something extraordinary happened on those few days, and so I started researching rites of passage and looking at communities all over the world. What I found that was so interesting in that so many communities did it. They all did it for their boys and their girls, and they all did it in a similar way. Around puberty, they would all take the boys or the girls away for a period and put them through a process that would celebrate and acknowledge the fact that they were becoming young men and women, that they had gifts to offer the community and that they had a role and a responsibility toward their community. As a result, I started creating programs and basically, it took over my life! To the point where I now work full-time as the CEO of the Rites of Passage Institute. We have set up programs in schools and communities and have trained people around Australia and in 10 different countries, with over 150,000 people coming through our programs.
Some of the Rites of Passage ceremonies undertaken around the world are very interesting.
We talk about challenges, and often for the boys it involves something to do with fear or pain. In certain communities, they may have to go out and kill a wild animal, or jump off a big tower, or spend time on their own in the desert. For girls, it’s often done more as a group and involves an internal journey, where the aim is to learn to trust their inner voice, and to trust the other women and girls in their group. In fact, in some of communities, when girls start menstruating, they are put inside a hollow tree for a number of days and while they are there, older women come to visit and talk to them, giving them knowledge and mentoring them.
Research really does show that those mid-teenage years are the most challenging for teens, particularly around 16, when they are most at risk.
And I believe a big part of this is our failure to create rites of passage for our children. They’re struggling, they’re lost and they are in an in-between time in their lives. They’re not children, but they’re not young adults. It’s the most important transition time in their lives. It’s a time when they critically need to be acknowledged as becoming young adults. They have to learn the differences between being a child and an adult. A child basically just thinks about themselves – it’s all about them, they want constant acknowledgement and they can’t handle their emotions. They are looking for a mother to do everything for them and a father who is a hero figure who sets boundaries. This really needs to change as our children move into a more adult way of thinking; where they understand it’s not all about them. They’re part of a community, they have something to offer that community, and their community needs them.
It’s a critical time for parents when their children are between 5 and 14.
It’s so important to do a couple of things. Firstly, find the things that you and your child enjoy doing one-on-one. Then turn off your phone and do it. It can be anything from playing music, walking the dog, having a cup of milk at the end of the night, going fishing, checking out a movie … Anything, but find the time to regularly do it, with the aim of continuing that habit with them once they’re teenagers so you can keep that connection with them. The other thing that is great is to share stories with them about when you were their age. What worked well and things that didn’t necessarily work well, so they learn from hearing your stories, which also makes a great discussion point. Finally, understand that they are going to muck up, they are going to make mistakes, they’re going to do silly things at times, and that that’s a fantastic opportunity to learn. What we need to do is to separate the person from the behaviour so we don’t shame them. It’s about saying, “Look, we support you. We love you. It’s not okay what happened and let’s talk about, work out what we’re going to do and see what we learned from this.” That’s a very big lesson for kids to develop their resilience and to learn that, yes, we all make mistakes.
We've been creating Rites of Passage programs for boys and supporting women to create Rights of Passage programs for girls, for many years now, and there are many different ways they can happen.
There are public programs where for the boys, we’ll create father and son programs and take them away in the bush for five days. We have a property in Byron Bay which is 140 acres, where we’ve set up a big camping area. The men and boys hand in all their electronics and they spend five days with us. The men share their stories about how they grew up and the times that have impacted their lives. We also create challenges for the boys. They all create a vision of how they want to be in the future and then spend some time thinking about behaviours they know they need to let go of that won’t work in their lives anymore. All of that’s very powerful.
We also do a very beautiful process around honouring, where each of the young men is honoured by their father and other men.
They sit on a chair in front of everyone and the man has an opportunity to tell that boy what he admires about him, what gifts he sees, and the things he loves about him. It’s very powerful. It comes from the Indigenous theory that each child is born with a spirit and that the most fabulous thing we can do as adults, educators and parents is to bring those gifts forward and recognise the spirit that’s in the child. In doing so, we can really help them to find what they’re here to do in this lifetime.
Programs can also be set up in schools in many different ways.
Similarly, there are mother and daughter programs where girls and women spend time together. The key part of it is in sharing stories as we find that the best way to pass on wisdom and knowledge is not by telling the kids what to do, but by actually sharing our stories (good and bad), and then giving them an opportunity to ask questions. We also find that sharing stories are a fantastic way of building the community. When people know each other and know their stories, then they form much closer bonds. We consistently find that people leave the programs feeling very positive and motivated to do something good in the world and to strengthen their relationships with their families.
I definitely see self-esteem issues beginning in children.
That’s why we talk about spending time with them, sharing our stories and importantly, recognising the gifts in our children from as early as possible, so they know we love them for who they are. There are two things that I think most benefit children and their self-esteem. One is their being seen and acknowledged for who they are. The other is when we spend one-on-one time with them, turning off our mobile phones and making them know they are the most important things. The most important people. And I think when children have low self-esteem, that’s when addiction becomes more of a risk. Whatever the addiction is – drugs, alcohol, computers, anything – if they’re trying to escape, they don’t feel strong and healthy in themselves. When they’re doing those things, they feel how they want to feel, then those addictions become a lot more attractive.
“ Having been a father of two young men, two step children and an adopted son in Sri Lanka (I certainly haven't been the first) ... I certainly haven't been the perfect parent. But I have really tried to spend time one-on-one with my children, to do things together with them, share my stories as much as I can and really find what is special about them. ”
I have a lot of concerns about IT. I see that the kids who are doing well have phones and have computers, but they use them as a tool - they're not with them all the time.
And the kids who are struggling are just on their phones the entire time. I think that IT is kind of the drug of today. If a kid’s not feeling great, they’re going to have two-and-a-half thousand friends on Facebook, they can play video games and be superheroes – but it’s not actually real and it is incredibly available. They’ve all got phones and the messaging is really, really damaging. So I think we have to be very careful and at this stage, we don’t actually know how to manage it, because it’s a first generational problem and the kids are definitely much better on all of this than we are. And then we have images in the media, like Kim Kardashian for the girls and the NRL footballers for the boys. Unfortunately, it’s really bad imaging, which tells us that we have to look a certain way or we’ve got a problem. And that’s very difficult, because there is a lot of messaging coming in. Once again, it’s very important that we show our kids that we love them for who they are, we spend time with them and we share our stories. We constantly have to look for opportunities when our children do things well or when we see something they’re passionate about; to give them positive reinforcement. That doesn’t mean that if they do something that’s not okay we ignore it, but I do think that we actually need to make it one of our life purposes to help them find what is unique to them.
Fathering has had a major impact on my life.
I spent a significant amount of time as a young father with a one and a three-year-old as a single father. It’s what made me grow up – having to put someone else’s needs in front of my own. My parenting style has very much been to be involved, active and honest with my children. And to be learning. As I said before, I was not the perfect father, but I’ve focused on just really loving them. I feel very blessed that now in their mid-20s, we still have an adventure together once a year one-on-one and my oldest boy says, “If something good happens, dad, you’re the first person that I ring up.” There have definitely been challenges for me as a father. The time that I commit to work and what it takes for me to being a single father is a challenge; but I actually don’t think there’s any father who’s not challenged. That’s part of the whole learning journey. In terms of what I would have done differently, it’s that old thing of spending more time together, prioritised more, learnt earlier to turn off mobile phones when we were together. And so on.
What I admire most about my sons is that I can absolutely say that they're good young men.
They’re good, they’re respectful, they have good values. They’re both keen to do something positive with their lives. They work, they’re independent, they’ve got good partners who they love and respect and I’m extremely proud of my sons. Finally, I think the importance of expressing to our children how much we love them is that they grow from that. They pick up on that unconditional love; that we’ll love them even when they’re in trouble and even when they’re not doing exactly what we want. It is incredibly important. And especially a love where we’re helping them to find out what they’re really passionate about in this life and what they want to do on their journeys.