Rites of Passage: A Conversation With Randy Newberg

The sun was getting low when our neighbor wandered over, ready to unload the question he had on his mind. He asked Ron about some fishing tackle he had come into, and then asked him about a rite of passage from childhood that might be fading as fast as the sun did that night.

“You ever get a leatherman?” he asked Ron, as Ron was nodding and smiling at the memory.

I was lost. To me, a leatherman sounded like a bad guy, a villain from a scary ghost story. Or one of those blood-bath movies. Something like that.

“A multi-tool,” Ron offered me, knowing what my confused face needed.

And now this conversation, although with different lingo here and there, had come up several times with different people in recent weeks. A leatherman. A multi-tool. A Swiss Army knife.

Same with the stories that came with my son receiving a compound bow or the boys learning to shoot. Different words. Same rites of passage.

I had talked about it with my uncle and cousin, asking them both if they remembered getting their first knives, telling them both that we had given my son his first one this year. Even as a memory, it is a moment of pride. And in the moment, I could tell I had witnessed something my son would install into his permanent memory bank.

But it seems these moments may be riding off into the sunset, being replaced by new rites of passage that involve WiFi passwords and downloads and touch screens. Cell phones and gaming systems are serving as the new age-stamped milestones, as has been suggested by a number of experts, and recently quite eloquently by Outside magazine.

So, when we saw Randy Newberg at the Western Hunting and Conversation Expo in Utah recently, we couldn’t miss the chance to ask him his thoughts on the issue. He had just finished recording a podcast about kids and the outdoors, and offered us a couple chairs so we’d be comfy as we dove back into the subject and asked him about his memory of a childhood rite of passage.

“It was, ‘Okay, you are now providing food,’” Newberg said of bringing home his first successful hunt and the announcement that came with the accomplishment when it came time to cook dinner. “We’re eating Randy’s grouse.”

While he didn’t try to quantify the changing tide that comes with evolving technology and an ever-increasing social dependency on it among today’s youth, Newberg did have a few ideas about how to engage kids with the outdoors – even in the face of a WiFi-addicted culture.

“It was all about making things fun,” Newberg said of taking his son camping when he was young, despite his desire to take him on a more epic hunting or fishing outing. “If he was having fun, I was having fun.”

Newberg recalled how his son, from the age of 4, would busy himself during outings by counting, and keeping a tally, on the different types of animals they would see. And, he’d give a verbal report at the end of the day. He loved building fires, like most kids. And he loved to take photos.

So, Newberg gave his son the unofficial title of adventure photographer, an assignment that would grow into a passion as he grew into adulthood.

“Kids are such sponges,” Newberg said. “You just have to put them in a place and watch them absorb things. I really don’t think kids want to just sit and watch TV.”

Find the thing, the one thing that gets them going, Newberg said. If kids are collectors, challenge them to find different treasures while exploring. If they’re into rocks, help them identify them and understand their age. All it takes is a seed, he said.

Newberg explained the philosophy by using life in Montana as a case study. There, an untold number of kids connect with the outdoors because of a love of skiing. And the better they get at skiing, the deeper they explore into the back country, looking for the untouched paths. Once there, they begin to understand the importance of public land, and begin to see how wildlife interacts with the land. And soon, he said, those skiers looking for a great run begin to understand that everything is connected, and they ultimately begin to advocate for the causes that keep their space the way they like it.

In other words, a desire to protect public land goes beyond hunters.

“If you’re informed by experience, you advocate more,” he said. “Let them take it where it will take them.”

So, yes, these rites of passage are still important. And they may be even more important now that they are novelties in a WiFi world. Even as someone living in Montana, Newberg said the groups of boys he would take camping with his son were largely unexperienced.

Outdoor adventures are different. Every time. They distinguish one day from any other day. They aren’t a high score or another level, things that fade almost as fast as they are achieved. Adventures stick.

“It will be something they take with them wherever they go in life,” Newberg said.

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