In the endless stream of advice we offer our teens, it is far too easy to fall back on clichés, well-worn turns of phrase or unquestioned ideas that contain only a shred of truth. Sometimes when I am heaping these meaningless, or worse, harmful, words on my kids I stop and think, is this really true or have I just heard it so many times I have come to accept it as truth? Here are a few of the aphorisms I have at one time or another offered up and why, instead, I owed my kids the truth.
Eight Lies Parents Tell Teens:
1. College is the best four years of your life. College may be three and a half, or three or two of the best years of your life, or it may not. College requires a period of adjustment. Moving to a place where you know almost no one and there are few true friends is not a recipe for instant happiness. Freshman find themselves lost or homesick and all of that is normal. What isn’t normal is thinking you will wake up your first morning at university and all will be great. But when we tell them that there are four years of fun in store, and it turns out not to be strictly true, pain, disappointment and a feeling of “what is wrong with me” can follow. One of my kids described college as a time of high highs and low lows and that may be just about right. Today, as a mom, I would have a hard time arguing that the best years of my life came before my children existed.
2. You need to find your passion. If you find a passion in high school or college, that is a wonderful and fortunate thing. But you may not find it there, or any where and that will not stand in the way of having a happy, productive, caring and successful life. Do not sweat this one, it may be one of the biggest lies we tell our children and ourselves. When we feed our kids this lie we send them to chase something they may never find.
3. Keep all your options open. I am guilty of this one, of telling my kids to commit to nothing and try not to close any doors. Life isn’t lived by standing in hallways, immobilized by indecision, but rather by bursting through those doors, jumping at an opportunity and, if it fails, regrouping and trying again.
4. Work hard and you will succeed. While great for motivation, this may be the most dangerous of the lies we tell. Work hard and you may fail because success and failure are never entirely in our own hands and the universe is a far more capricious place than we like to believe. We live in a world still shrouded in racism, sexism and widely diverging opportunities for children of different backgrounds. By suggesting that effort alone will find its reward, we gloss over these essential lessons, giving advantaged kids more credit and disadvantaged kids less credit than is due. Without hard work few succeed, but the simple application of hard work comes with no guarantees.
5. When I was your age… Almost any sentence that begins with these words is at best, not helpful, and at worst, harmful. And the truth, the real truth, is that most of us have long since blurred the lines between what really happened when we were our kid’s age and the lore that has grown up around our own pasts. My kids are not me, I am not my parents and this is not the 70s or 80s. If I continue to hark back to times that no longer exist, I make myself irrelevant and entirely annoying. Even if I was certain that everything I did was right (and I missed that mark by a wide margin) my kids are their own selves and, as such, will need to find what works for them. They will study ideas and take jobs that did not even exist when I was their age and, if I want to be helpful to them, I need to let go of the past and parent for today. Holding ourselves captive to a time that is less and less relevant, keeps us from seeing and accepting the world in which we are raising our children.
6. It doesn’t matter what you major in, only the degree is important. Yes and no. There are degrees like engineering and pre-med that lay down a path you might follow. And, finding yourself in possession of a diploma is essential for many career paths. But even in more subtle ways a choice of major can be a choice of life. Most college majors do not have a strict vocational link but they will change the way you see the world, the lens through which you frame life’s events and thus some of the paths you may take. Studying economics versus, say, psychology may alter your career choice but far more important, your outlook, so do not take this decision lightly.
7. It is important to become independent in high school, because in college you are on your own. Yeah, right. After 18 years of loving you, watching you, caring about every aspect of your life, parents just disappear after college drop off. We all become independent on our own schedule and every family does this differently. Independence does not come with a deadline. Being close to your family and finding, at times, that you still need your parents and siblings is not a sign of failure, but one of love.
8. College isn’t real life. High school and college kids are led to believe that college is a hiatus from real life, a four-year long Bacchanalia with studying interspersed. Many of the mistakes you make or the triumphs you earn in college will follow you for life. Facebook found that 28% of couples attend the same college and many people make friends and discover ideas they will hold forever. While college may be a time of exploration and experimentation we should not lead our kids to believe that they are waiting for something to start. Real life does not have a beginning or end.