I am vaguely aware that there is, coming up, some kind of “graduation” ceremony for my older daughter’s middle school. I’m still waiting to hear the details, such as when and what this actually is. One thing I know for certain: nobody has asked me to give a speech at the event.
The nice thing about being a blogger is that nobody has to ask. Here is my unsolicited commencement speech for all eighth-graders—and their parents—everywhere. I encourage you to give this speech at the dinner table tonight, like I’m going to do.
(By the way, this speech is not based on the performance and behaviors of my own eighth-grader, who is perfect. Everything in here is completely hypothetical and/or archetypal.)
Middle school “graduation” speech ... from a dad
Of course I’ve never given a speech like this before. I’m not even sure why middle schools have such ceremonies, since middle school is just a stepping-stone anyway. But I could say the same thing about high school, which has itself become a mere waypoint on the way to college.
As I hope you’ve already heard, middle school (or junior high, as I knew it) is actually the hard part. If you’ve done a halfway decent job of making the transition from largely irresponsible, clueless child to basically self-sufficient (albeit exasperated) teenager, high school shouldn’t be a difficult transition. Moreover, kids seem to mellow out in high school, as their brains catch up to their hormone-ravaged bodies. So, since you matriculating middle-schoolers are all going to be just fine, I’m going to focus this speech on what you can do for your poor parents over the next four years.
There’s solid precedent for thinking of your parents on this momentous occasion, even when all the fuss seems to be about you. I suppose at my high school graduation somebody must have given a speech, but I don’t remember it. What I do remember is what my physics teacher said during the last week of school. He gave what struck me as kind of the antithesis of a commencement speech. Here is my best recollection of what he said:
Look, a lot of fuss is about to be made over all of you. You’ll wear this fancy cap and gown and attend this big ceremony with all these people watching. But don’t get too excited. In the big scheme of things, graduating from high school isn’t that big an achievement. It basically means you showed up for four years. And if you really think about it, most of you could figure out a more fun way to spend your afternoon than dressing up and standing around through a bunch of speeches. Try to appreciate that this ceremony isn’t actually for you. It’s for your parents, and your grandparents, so please honor their ceremony by not decorating your mortarboard with stickers and whatnot, and justifying this misbehavior by saying it’s your ceremony. Instead, behave respectfully, go where you’re told, and try not to do anything to disturb the event. You have the rest of the summer to screw around and do as you please.
Of course, there aren’t any caps or gowns at today’s ceremony, and since kids your age aren’t organized or devious enough to smuggle in beer or inflatable dolls, like the students at my high school graduation did [wait for laughter], I’m going to give you some guidelines on how to advance your development as thinking, considerate, and mature beings in your day-to-day life. If you follow this advice you might start to feel a bit less anxious about grades, popularity, life changes, and the ten other things that I, as a parent, could never understand.
Guideline #1: Honor your commitments! No excuses!
This does not mean “Prioritize your commitments and honor the most important ones.” It means you should not commit to doing something unless you know you will have the time, resources, ability, discipline, and commitment to do it, as promised and on time. You must honor every commitment you make, no matter whom you made it to.
When you’re in high school, you will have all kinds of distractions—some of them of the “hanging out” variety, but also a great number of worthy extracurricular activities. That’s great—but you shouldn’t, say, skip practicing the piano because you have to write a student election speech. If you cannot honor all your obligations, you are overscheduled and need to scale back. Commitments come first; leisure comes second. That said, before committing to something, ensure you will still have time to set aside for leisure. It’s important, too.
Remember that extracurricular activities shouldn’t be sacrificed at the altar of good grades. If you’re on a sports team, your teammates rightfully expect a certain level of participation, even if you have a big test coming up (and after all, who doesn’t?). It is more important to learn to be reliable, balanced, and responsible than to get straight As. Many great scholars totally wash out in real life, and not all successful people were top students.
There is almost never a good excuse for failing to honor a commitment. For example, to say “I ran out of time” means a) “I did not manage my time well,” b) “I did not prioritize this commitment to you,” and c) “By making this excuse I am demonstrating a willingness to let this happen again.” Remember, nobody wants to hear an excuse. Often, an excuse functions as the opposite of an apology. It suggests that you’re not holding yourself responsible for your failure.
Guideline #2: “Own” your problems
You must recognize when something is your problem, and don’t try to make it into your parents’ problem. Say, for example, you forgot to get up extra early for a student council meeting, and now you’re about to be late for it. Don’t yell at your mom or dad, “You gotta drive me! You gotta!” After all, you made the commitment to attend that early meeting, not your parents. It is unpleasant and offensive for them to be shrieked at by somebody who has made a mistake and behaves as though it’s his or her parent’s job to fix it.
Sometimes you will fail. Everybody does. Fail gracefully, without dragging down the people around you, particularly your parents who suffer (if only silently) whenever you do. Yes, of course you can always go to your parents to be consoled, but resist the impulse to implicate them in your mistake. Learn how to accept a setback as stoically as you can; try to learn from it; then move on.
Guideline #3: Understand the role of your parents
Most of you kids probably dream of having the cool kind of parents, who are a combination of personal assistant, chauffeur, purveyor of booze, and ATM. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not what your parents signed up for. And all those hundreds of loaded diapers you stuck them with have probably exhausted your parents’ patience.
There are all kinds of ways your parents can support your efforts, but not all of them are actually helpful. Should they be available to help with homework? Of course (unless it’s something like calculus that your parents put behind them decades ago). Is it right for your mom or dad to bend over backwards to get you out of a tough spot, when you’re behind on an assignment due to procrastination and/or disorganization?
Perhaps not. If they help you out of such a bind, perhaps they’re sending the wrong message, such as “It’s okay to fly by the seat of your pants, since you’ll always have a parent to pick up the slack.” (You won’t.) As important as that school assignment seems now, the bigger education is in managing your time. This never seems obvious in the moment, but it’s better for your mom or dad to let you fail now—and thus learn self-sufficiency the hard way—than for them to leave you stranded later, when you’re truly on your own.
There is more to parenting than helping a child succeed. A good parent strives to teach his or her child to be helpful to others. Many of us parents are trying to instill character, which is rarer and more valuable than the ability to succeed.
Of course this development takes time. Infants are practically useless; grade-school kids are often clueless; teenagers often feel overwhelmed. Self-sufficiency is an evolution. You are now at an age where you can and should be taking on as much as you can: setting and adhering to your routines, cleaning up after yourself, getting yourself where you need to go, and knowing what to do and when to do it without being reminded.
I hope that most of you have already managed to climb well into the purple tier of the developmental triangle I’ve presented here. This is a simplistic schematic; the colors should blend m ore, to convey that even before being totally self-sufficient, a person can still be helpful to others.
Remember that you are not yet an independent adult, free to pursue only what is important to you. So long as you are dependent on your parents, you should expect them to be involved in setting your priorities. When you set goals for yourself, work to keep them aligned with the goals your parents have for you. And when you ask your mom or dad for support, remember that you do not have the big picture; gracefully accept it when the answer is no.
Not all the help your parents give you is solicited; for example, they are justified in giving you unsolicited advice. That’s part of their job. And even though you didn’t ask for advice, you’re expected to follow it. It’s exasperating to your parents when you don’t, and then they have to deal with the consequences ... which brings me to my next guideline, which is a sore point with so many parents.
Guideline #4: GET ORGANIZED! STAY ORGANIZED!
Why don’t the greatest mathematicians do everything in their heads? It’s because they need pencil and paper to organize their thoughts. Why was written language invented? It’s because oral communication is too imprecise, unreliable, and ungainly. Writing something down frees your brain up for bigger, better thoughts, while keeping tasks from being forgotten. As your life continues to get more complicated it will be impossible for you to honor all your commitments without systematically recording what is due and when. So get a pocket calendar you can bring to school with you. Record your commitments in it. Keep it handy. Look it over frequently. Document deadlines well in advance. Check things off as you complete them.
This calendar is only one of your tools. Figure out everything you’ll need and keep it handy. I’m talking about your wristwatch, your textbook, your homework, that permission slip, your house key, your gym shorts, your glasses, and the ten other things that I as a parent hope to be blissfully unaware of because they’re your problem, not mine.
Imagine if David had shown up to duel Goliath and forgot his sling: “Dude, I couldn’t find my weapon, we’ll have to reschedule.” That’s not gonna happen. Goliath’s gonna kick your ass. So, select a single best place in your home to store each of your life tools, and store them only in this place! If you leave these tools lying around, they will be in people’s way, and they’ll get squirreled away and/or buried, and you won’t have them when you need them ... and then, if you complain to your parents about this, well, you’re in clear violation of Guideline #2 above. (Don’t tell me you forgot Guideline #2! Pay attention, there’ll be a test later!)
Guideline #5: Figure out guidelines of your own
I don’t claim to be some world authority on all this. Perhaps the most important skill for you to develop is a sense of being in charge of your own life, becoming self-sufficient, and figuring out—usually when something doesn’t work—what you need to do to become more effective. Periodically step back, look at your life, and ask the question, “How can I make this work better? What is falling through the cracks? How can I keep that from happening?” If you create the right habits and systems, you will get more done and avoid all kinds of strife as you go along.
I’ll leave you with this refreshingly non-didactic thought: as systematic and prescriptive as all this seems, everybody is just winging it, and that’s okay. You’re all amateurs. There’s no such thing as a professional high-schooler, and if there were, we’d see all kinds of malpractice suits.