Dear Future Graduate Living in My House,
By SARAH SMITH NESSEL
Special to The Star
You’re not even 10 years old, but apparently you’re long overdue for The Talk.
No, not that one. You’re not getting that one until I see signs that you 1) have the slightest bit of curiosity about what old-timers call “the facts of life” and 2) are capable of controlling your impulse to recite at school, word for word and at high volume, conversations you have heard at home. So it’ll be a while.
The Talk I’m referring to is the talk about your future.
Kids’ futures come faster than they used to. When I was 10, I was just starting to learn my times tables, and I’d never heard of tutors or enrichment activities or caps and gowns being worn by anyone who hadn’t yet hit puberty.
You, on the other hand, have known your times tables for years. You’re a veteran of Gymboree and My Gym and Kindermusik and a bunch of other franchised early childhood programs I can’t even remember. Plus piano lessons and swimming lessons and summer camps and tutoring. And therapy — lots of it, at no small cost, to improve your social and language skills. Some of it may have actually been helpful. Hard to say, without a control group.
At least your father and I were spared the ridiculousness of seeing you and your classmates in caps and gowns at preschool and kindergarten “graduations,” but I’m sure that was simply an oversight on some administrator’s part.
Not to worry — you’ve made up for it by bringing home all sorts of “participation” ribbons and medals and trophies since you were 2. The only thing of that sort you’ve actually earned, as far as I can tell, is that yellow tip on your karate belt. You know, the one you demanded soon after starting the class, assuming that your karate instructor would simply say yes. You were stunned when he didn’t.
Did you know that long ago, things like ribbons and trophies were treasured and proudly displayed, because people had to work really hard to earn them? Even kids! It’s true! Do you know where all your ribbons and trophies and medals are now? Do you even care?
I know it’s time for The Talk because this is graduation season, and no self-respecting upper-middle-class parent lets a graduation season go by without it, even if the next graduation in the family is years away. It’s aspirational, you see. Like my reference to being upper middle class.
So here’s my version of The Talk, which has been compressed to account for the shrunken attention span of your generation: You will not waste four years of your time and my money getting a liberal arts degree. You will learn to like math, science and engineering, because in those fields lies your best hope of getting a job with decent pay. When you land that job, you will save the paycheck until the bills come in, not the other way around. You will not spend your time, energy and money on possessions when you could be spending them on experiences. And by “experiences,” I do not mean tattoos. It may be true that there is only one person left on this planet who thinks tattoos are trashy, but that person is your mother. If you remember nothing else from The Talk, remember that.
My version of The Talk apparently is a tame one. Your demographic is under an incredible amount of pressure, thanks to my demographic. Researchers have even studied it, and they say that the more parents spend in an attempt to give their children advantages, the more stressed the children become. A psychology professor at Columbia University found that drug abuse, depression and anxiety happen more often among upper-middle-class kids than inner-city kids. Her name is Suniya Luthar, and she told a Reuters editor that in a culture of “enrichment” beginning in early childhood, “it is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that people like me have gotten our priorities messed up, and people like you are suffering because of it. We structure our lives around your sports and other activities, then we wonder where you got that sense of entitlement. We foolishly dig into our retirement funds to pay for your college education, apparently thinking that you’re going to support us throughout our old age. We tell you to aim for the stars, but we give you prizes just for showing up. No wonder you’re confused.
Maybe it’s time we parents start spending a bit more energy on ourselves and our communities and a bit less energy on you. I’ve been thinking of taking piano lessons, for instance. If I do, you’ll get to hear me practice, which won’t exactly be a treat but might teach you a bit about working hard at something even when you’re really bad at it. Really, really bad.
Or maybe I’ll start doing more volunteer work. It would be cheaper than piano lessons, and I could maybe take you along. There’s a whole world of need out there, and it would do us both some good to get involved.
If you earn it, I might even give you a ribbon.
Freelancer Sarah Smith Nessel writes The Bubble every week.