“Turn left! Watch out, there is a bomb right next to your elbow!” If you had been on the Father/Son retreat I led out on a farm in Virginia a couple of years ago you would have heard these and similar words as fathers guided their blindfolded sons through a “minefield” as the boys scurried around trying to collect candy. If they bumped into a “mine” then they blew up and lost all their candy. If they did blow up they had to start all over, and worse, another boy would most likely gather their carefully collected stash while they were going back.

This amazing game came from a priest friend. In a very tangible way it teaches what it is like to walk through life. Their fathers and other mentors in their life can see the potential dangers and pitfalls and help the boys avoid them, but only if they listen. The fathers were not allowed to go into the minefield, only to give advice from the sidelines.

This is an important lesson for the fathers as well, you can’t run through and remove or lay over every mine in your son’s way. You have to build a certain level of communication with him and teach him how to avoid the mines, but ultimately you can’t do it for him. He has to learn the life lessons for himself or no matter how hard you try they will never stick.  If he doesn’t trust his father or remains closed to his advice, he is at a huge disadvantage.  But that’s the trick.  How should mentors and fathers offer advice when they see it is needed?

Recently I stayed with a friend who has two sons ages five and seven. In the evening they wanted to play chess.  They got to it after a short dispute over who got to be white, with their dad and I looking over their shoulders. Whenever he or I tried to give advice to one the other would complain, so we stopped giving advice and just watched, making comments only after the play was made, and sometimes correcting if they got the rules wrong or didn’t move out of check correctly.

It was incredibly difficult to see where one of them was making a mistake or missing an opportunity not be able to say anything. Dad got in trouble a couple of times from one brother or the other for giving help. Besides a practice in patience, I learned something very important, telling the boys what to do in a certain case is a band-aid solution but doesn’t teach them how to play better or how to see the dangers or opportunities themselves. One of my greatest mentors in high school used to insist with us that what was important were the principles.

This makes a lot of sense, in giving advice to the boys on the chessboard I could have told the younger one not to move his king to a certain spot, but it would have been better to teach him the principle that it is bad to get stuck with your king alone in a corner, it makes him easier to put in checkmate.  Teaching principles keeps us from nitpicking particulars, which can make our mentoring turn into overreaching, nagging, or doing it for them.

While it is important to correct and guide boys in concrete cases, ‘do this and don’t do that.’ It is better to guide them in principles, because in the end it is the principles they have assimilated that will guide their actions. They have a brain, and teaching principles helps them to use it, to see what is before them and act accordingly.  Unlike the blindfold game, with chess they can see.  The more of the world they see the more they need to be guided by ingrained principles, not just commands.  When you are around to guide the boy you can tell him what to do, but when a father or mentor is not around the principle he has learned from you can still guide him.

If you keep barking commands like he’s blindfolded, he might sense you don’t trust him and give up listening to you, even if you get louder.

So, correct and guide in the moment but don’t forget to connect it to the principle. When your son hits his sister correct him for it but explain why it is wrong and what the principle of action is. Men are supposed to protect and defend the women in their family, and hitting a sister goes directly against that principle. That will teach him what he needs to do not only that time but the next time, and hopefully for the rest of his life.