It’s not intentional, really. We want to believe it’s true when we say that they can be and do anything they want when they grow up. We want to believe that there’s some relationship between that idea, and the need for them to perform throughout their teen years as if their lives depended on it.
We want to believe that there is no conflict between our urging them to “follow their dreams” morphing suddenly and abruptly into “what are you going to major in” and “how are you going to support yourself for the rest of your life doing that?”
We tell them to do all the “right” things because we don’t know what else to tell them, and we can’t bear to tell them nothing. Or to let them fail. Or to let them veer from the prototypical success model—who knows where that might lead?
Maybe, just maybe, it will lead them slowly, and with some requisite turbulence, to themselves.
So if we really want to help our teen and young adult children, I’m thinking we should stop telling them that who they are is a series of grades and tests scores and titles and victories that must be accrued in a deliberate time and sequence—or else—and we should start telling them the truth, which, when you step back, I believe, looks something like this:
Between the ages of 15 and 25—give or take—you’re going to want to learn some things, e.g:
- What you like to do, and what you’re good at, and if those are the same things
- What kind of people make you happy and what kind of people seem happy to be around you
- What it feels like to love another person and the delirious grace that comes from being loved back
- Whether or not sex is going to become a defining factor in your life
- How to dig yourself out of a hole
- How to throw yourself into an idea that is bigger than yourself and seeing what happens
- How to cook a meal, do your laundry, clean your bathroom, and live with roommates
- How to look someone in the eye when you shake their hand
- What it feels like to earn a paycheck and then pay for something with money you earned
- Whether or not you can make enough money doing the things you like and are good at to live the way you want to live
- Or if money is more important to you than spending your time doing things you like or love and what that choice will cost you down the road (this usually has to be learned later)
- You’ll want to know what you believe in about Big Questions like God, and compassion, and why there’s evil in the world, and if you think you’re contributing to it, and how you feel about that
- You’ll want to know how to learn new things—some of your choosing, some not
- You’ll have to decide if your word will be your bond
- And to recognize those whose word is not
- It’s hard to build a good life on a wobbly foundation so you’re going to want to develop some confidence—if you’re lacking in that area—or some humility, if you’re not
- Do you know what makes you feel confident yet?
- Do you know how to express your thoughts and feelings?
- Do you know what you were put on this Earth to be and do?
Our kids will learn these things, and others, in no particular order, and often multiple times. No one will give them a certificate or a grade or a degree or a prize for them. But when they feel they’ve got a handle on most of these, they’ll be ready to have a really nice life. Let’s remember to tell them that sometimes.