Skip to main content

How do you make friends with your father?

2021 09 12 21 35 0001 88753cc3
Navigating a distant relationship with his father, Seth Barnes faces professional and personal challenges, and finds solace in a transformative Costa Rican sea kayak adventure offered as a gesture of unexpected support.
By Seth Barnes


How is your relationship with your father?

Are you able to be vulnerable with him? I’ve seen so many young people with a poor relationship with their dad – they didn’t get the love they needed. Many of them have been abused. Home has not been a safe place.

I can relate – though my parents loved me, my high school years were rough – in large part because of my complicated dad relationship. I didn’t know how to talk to him and he didn’t know how to talk to me. Mostly I just tried to hide and stay out of the way till I could go off to college.

At 31 years old, all this was in the past, but was unresolved. 1989 was a hard year for me – the year that I was fired from World Servants and I started AIM. The year of Leah’s birth. It was a year of stress and change. Karen was pregnant and we already had four kids. I was the sole breadwinner – what would I do now? I had no idea.

I was sad.

I felt like a failure. I’d gone to business school. My peers had gotten high paying jobs and now at 30 years old, I couldn’t even hold down a job at a nonprofit.

I’m not sure why he did it. I suspected that it was my mom, sensing how much I needed encouragement, who prompted him. But dad called up and said, “Let’s go on a father-son sea kayak adventure in Costa Rica. I’ll pay for it.”

Of course I said yes. We met in San Jose. Dad looked like he was ready for fun. I remember what a switch it seemed. All my life I never knew if he was going to greet me with a handshake or a hug. He was usually all business and struggled to express love. Sometimes he would say demeaning things. I learned not to expect his friendship.

But he had left all that behind.

He was excited about the trip. He had left his roles and his worries back home.

We woke in the hotel to a sunny Costa Rican morning. The Sierra Club, sponsor of the trip, met us with a bus. We loaded our stuff and watched as the mountainous landscape that became dry and tropical. We drove to the region of Guanacaste and a river that we would kayak to the sea.

What an adventure!

12 of us and a guide set out in kayaks. The first day we paddled hard and long. Crocodiles lined the river banks. We spied large iguanas in the trees. By the time we’d arrived to our campsite, we were exhausted. We ate our dinner and went to sleep with the haunting sound of howler monkeys echoing in the jungle around us.

Eventually we made it to the sea. We paddled along the coast to beautiful sandy beaches with new campsites. But more than the scenery, what made the trip extraordinary was the way dad treated me like a friend. It was as though I’d graduated from childhood. There was an ease between us.


In the midst of a truly discouraging time of life, dad was leaning into me and allowing me to see him as his friends did. It was a gift to my spirit.

Even after the sea kayak trip was over, more adventures lay in store. I’d asked my friends Dave Iglesias and Damon Ghee if they’d come down for a second week with my dad and me rafting and going to the beach. Dave Wroughton was in the process of starting a hotel he was going to call Grano de Oro. The five of us had fun on the Reventezon River and Manuel Antonio Park.


I was so thankful for those two weeks in Costa Rica making friends with my dad. Years later when I was helping him through the painful last year of his life, I leaned down to give him a hug and he whispered in my ear, “You’re my best friend.”

I think I can trace the start of our friendship back to that trip to Costa Rica.


Your situation is going to be different.

Yes, my dad made a decision to get to know me better and he created an opportunity that made it possible for us to start over. Who knows what it will take for you? Maybe you’ll have to take a step in his direction. Maybe he has a lot to apologize for. But this is your one beautiful life. This is your one father. Why not take a risk?

Application Questions: Have you ever had the chance to enjoy a friendship with your father? If so, what difference did it make in your life? If not, what do you wish had happened? If your father is still living, what risk could you take to go deeper in your relationship?

Comments (14)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

about team