I Want My 20-Year-Old To Learn These 20 Life Lessons

My eldest son just turned 20. I don’t even know what to do with that number. It means I’m old, for one. Like, really old. And yet I remember exactly where I was when I turned 20: taking a Shakespeare midterm in college.

I remember the shape of my bedroom, those who passed through it, and the ’50s-era flowered thrift store blouse I wore that day because I was going through my ironic June Cleaver phase. I remember the show I was in. If asked, I could still make those dance moves from muscle memory. Do you know why? Because it was yesterday.


Words of wisdom for a 20-year-old son
This mom has 20 pieces of advice for her 20-year-old son.


But mostly, I remember the hope. The hope of a 20-year-old looking forward to the rest of her life. Would I find love, a career, and mental clarity? What amazing surprises would it bring? What about that fuzzy tan sweater I lost in that bar? I miss that sweater. It had great buttons.

I found all of those things except the sweater, and then somewhere along the way, I lost them all, too. You turn around to grab a beer off the bar, and boom! Gone. Bye-bye, sweater. Bye-bye, career. Bye-bye, clarity. Bye-bye, love. It would be easy to blame myself for these losses, but as anyone who’s ever lost a sweater in a bar knows, sometimes things happen.

And yet, looking back, I can see where I made confident choices I should probably have reconsidered. No one’s life is immune from mistakes, but I figured I’d take a moment to give my no-longer-teenage son advice from his crotchety, highly imperfect, and slightly annoying mother.

Advice from a mom to her 20-year-old son

My darling son, for your newly 20-year-old self, I offer 20 random nuggets of maternal advice:

1. Make your coffee.

Take every penny you would have spent at Starbucks and invest it instead.

2.  Dance.

As often as life allows. Dance with others. Dance by yourself. Play the music as loud as you can without annoying the neighbors. Sometimes annoy them. “Blister in the Sun” is only 3 ½ minutes. The neighbors can handle 3 ½ minutes of Violent Femmes.

3.  Girls who don’t answer your texts are not playing coy.

They’re playing games you will never win.

4.  Roommates have their downsides.

It is labeling their hummus, for one. Leaving their pubic hairs in the bathtub drain is another. It’s okay to live alone, to feel loneliness. I urge you to live alone at some point. It will teach you who you are, stripped of your tribe. Plus, you have a guitar, for heaven’s sake. That’s what it’s there for.

5.  Don’t be afraid to ask for more money than the amount offered.

None of this “Sorry, we don’t have the budget.” That’s a lie. If they want you enough, they will find the budget.

6.  Spaghetti alle vongole is surprisingly easy and not too expensive to make.

Two big pots. Boil water for pasta in one. In the other: oil, garlic, pepper flakes, bunch o’ clams. (Wash them first! Cockles, Little Necks, it doesn’t matter.) Put a lid on the pot with the clams. Remove the shells as they open. Add some white wine to that clam-juicy, oily, peppery brew once the clams are set aside: ¼ cup, ½ cup, who cares?

Don’t pay too close attention to recipes. Find your groove with food. It’s not that hard. A handful of parsley, too. Throw the al dente pasta in there, cook it a bit longer, add some butter or not, clams on top of that, prego. Dinner. If you forget any of these steps or don’t have any wine, it’s usually okay. Clams are like that. You can’t go wrong.

7.  Condoms are your friends.

Nope. Nothing more to say on that topic. Moving on…

8.  ‘Follow your bliss’ is stupid advice.

If I were to follow my bliss, I’d be homeless and sitting naked on a beach in Bali. (That doesn’t sound so bad, but you know what I mean.) Find a career that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and lose track of time once you’re there. That’s the goal in every endeavor: flow. You might want to reconsider and start again if you’re not feeling the flow. (It’s okay to start again. And again and again.)

9.  Speaking of seizing upon hammock-like opportunities when they present themselves, here’s one from my dad: ‘Never turn down an opportunity to use the restroom.’ It has served me and my bladder quite well over the years.

10.  Baths and naps, rinse, repeat.

Work them into your life now because you will lose decades without them when you have kids. Hammocks, too. If you ever pass by a hammock, sit in it. For as long as you can.

11.  ‘I need more time’ hardly ever turns into ‘I love you.’

In rare instances, sure, but usually not. Move on. Cut your losses.

12.  White bread is the devil.

Avoid it at all costs. However, this rule goes out the window if you are in Paris. French baguettes and croissants are their religion. We are their loyal supplicants.

13.  Don’t wait until retirement to travel.

Do it now, before you have kids. Figure out where you have friends who can host you and go there. Look for deals on flights. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Do a home exchange.

14.  Doctors don’t know everything.

Sometimes they give terrible advice. If you feel something is off in your gut, it usually is. Seek out a second opinion. Or call me. I’m the least hypochondriacal person you know who also has a knack for Internet medical sleuthing.

15.  Take your time choosing a life partner.

Red flags at the beginning have the potential to turn into giant red weights around your ankles that will pull you under. Don’t move in with someone just because your lease is up. And don’t let real estate, loneliness, or desperation dictate your choices. Please wait until you feel like you know them.

16.  Buy a few lovely pieces of clothing that will last decades instead of lots of inexpensive things that will fall apart and go out of style next year.

I still have several items of clothing I bought in my twenties. Yes, the black cashmere sweater has its second set of elbow patches, and your sister stole my green suede jacket, and I have to wear the Catholic schoolgirl skirt with tights these days, but the black leather pants are as good as new.

17.  There is no roadmap.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’ll often be baffled at a crossroads, wondering which path to choose. Each road has its benefits. Plus, it’s foggy. You can barely see 20 yards in front of you. You can ask for my opinion or friends’ opinions, but ultimately you will have to choose which way you go and face the consequences of that choice alone.

18.  Don’t be afraid to use workarounds.

Duct tape makes an excellent hem in a pinch. Toothpicks and glue can hold up a fallen shelf. A grocery bag can double as wrapping paper. If you haven’t had time to shop, a peanut butter and banana sandwich is a perfectly acceptable meal.

Wine glasses do not have to be stemmed. Richard and Ruthie Rogers, a world-renowned architect married to a celebrated chef, could afford stemware if they wanted, only have one kind of humble water glass in their house. I know. I peeked.

19. Name-calling was unacceptable when you were 5, and it’s still not permitted after 25.

If someone is calling you names, call them on it.

20. Call your mother.

I’m not going to be around forever. And I love you more than anyone else on this planet: a good thing to remember when you’re feeling sad, lonely, or lost, which you will feel from time to time.

When you were an infant and feeling that way, I held you tight to my chest, and we’d dance to “Son of a Preacher Man,” which I’d sing off-key into your ear. You’re too heavy for me to do that to you now, but we can still do some virtual version on the phone. Minus the off-key singing, of course.

This post originally appeared on Club Mid.

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About Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken is the NYT bestselling author of THE RED BOOK, BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL, SHUTTERBABE, HELL IS OTHER PARENTS and The ABCs of Adulthood: An Alphabet of Life Lessons.
Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate, and The Financial Times, among others.

Read more posts by Deborah

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