I’m not a teenage girl, in case you thought otherwise. I’m the father of a girl who just turned 16 though, and she asked me to write on the subject of what to expect from the next year or so. Here’s my sense of expectations.
In retrospect, you’re likely to say that 16 was among the best years of your life. These are the last glorious, innocent days with friends: days before competition means anything, before you really have to think of the world beyond your high school community. You are still hanging out, working together, and trying to feel your way towards a dim future as adults. Sorry to say, that’s in retrospect. While living through it, you’ll find this year fairly boring, and somewhat nerve-wracking. You’ll find your time filled with activities: school, home, hobbies. You’re likely to find these activities somewhat less stressful than before, because you’re more used to them and higher-up in the pecking order. Still, there are a lot of activities, and you’ll notice your day is pretty full. My advice: take time to enjoy your friends. Take pictures; they’ll be priceless.
For both boys and girls, you are beginning the single most difficult, painful, and important transition of your life: the transition to adulthood. It’s not painful yet, but it will get worse in the next year or two. If all goes well, by age 22 or 23, you will be through it. Once through it, you will think of yourself as an independent moiety: someone who’s formed by us (your parents, family, and friends) but not defined by us. Once through it, if all goes well, you will be able to support yourself financially, and you will be able to live on your own. You are likely to want to live on your own too (teary smile) at least for a good portion of the year. At 16, this is a dimly seen, scary future, far off in the fog.
At this point, you’re still tied to us, and I’m glad you don’t resent it. You’re happy to be a daughter, a sister to your siblings, a peer to your friends, and a student in your high school. Some teachers and classes you like, others less so. Your grades and hobbies are important to you, but your friends are more important. It’s nice to have high grades, but not so important as to disturb a friendship. You think of your hobbies as fun sidelights, and home as a place to relax with them. At home you write, read, draw, or cook for the fun of it. As the next few years wear on, this will change. You’ll think of yourself more as a writer, an artist, or plumber; as a private first class, or whatever. You’ll be good at something, not just generally bright. Some friends will fit better into this self-view; the friends who don’t fit will slowly drift away.
At 16, I started thinking of myself as ‘an engineer’ or perhaps as a scientist or mathematician based on my hobbies and what I was good at in school. It became clear that I was not going to be an athlete, a historian, or a musician (though I retained an interest). Dropping options is a big, painful part of the transition. I recall almost hearing the doors closing behind me. You want to turn back, to catch the options. Know that, to not choose is to choose. As those doors close (and they should) new, better ones open that you didn’t realize existed. Losing friends and hobbies that are too high maintenance is good for you, and for them at this stage. Sex will rear its head, unexpectedly, and in new ways. Sexuality and homosexuality were words; for some they are becoming the dominant reality. For better or worse, you’ll be drawn in.
As the year draws to a close, you’re likely to find our parental presence more and more annoying. This is a good thing; it’s what will get you out the door, and launch you as a person. We’re on your side here, but won’t be able to help as your old you will begin to fight the new one. You plan to go to college, perhaps away from home (both options are good), but some of your friends will want to stay at home and do on-line vocational courses, or get married as soon as possible. You’ll likely drift away from those friends. Some college-bound friends will pick schools far from yours, or will pick majors or activities that you’re not interested in. You’re likely to find yourself gravitating to those friends who’re going to your college or for majors that match yours. There is pain in realizing that you won’t be as close with the remaining friends. Know that doors are opening here in two ways. First, just as high school provided your current friends, college and pre-college will provide you a new group — ones you may keep longer since the relationship based on shared direction, not just shared experiences. Also, know that some of the friends who drift away now will come back later — perhaps when you and they are married.
You may come to realize that some of your closest friends are your competitors for college places, scholarships. This may seem bad (or disloyal) but it’s good. Competition will help you improve, and will increase your drive, and that’s what you need this year. Think of the relationship in “A separate peace.” Think of how the relationship between the young Harper Lee and Truman Capote likely shaped “to kill a mockingbird” and furthered both of their careers. Competition with your cousins is good too. Watch how they deal with competition and life choices. Are there family members that could be life models or coaches? A big reason we have the family reunions is so that you can have a choice of life models and coaches.
Money will become a lot more important in the next few years — for things, travel, school applications, and clothes. You’re likely to find it’s annoying to get your money from us, and you’re likely to start working more for money. This is the beginning of financial independence. As you do, you’ll find yourself becoming defined by the job you do, how much you make, and what you spend your money on. This is good, but includes a loss of Idyl. Your first jobs will not be great, and you may find leaches hanging on: financial and emotional. As annoying as it is to have a leech, it’s worse to be the leach. Try to avoid it; be a good friend or neighbor. You may want to buy stock, or start a company, or produce a product for sale: a book, album, or whatever. If it’s something you’re interested in and you try to make money at it, the experience will be worth the effort. Even if it turns out a financial failure, it will be an important part of the emotional and financial person you make of yourself. If you don’t go into business, you may get involved in politics or religion, moving right or left. That’s OK, and very normal — another part of self-development.
You’re already beginning to develop wonderful life-skills. We don’t compliment you enough on this. You’ve learned to cook eggs and noodles, and find you like the independence it gives. That’s the ticket to adulthood. You’ll need more life skills to give you real independence, but you’re on the right track. You’ll need to learn to do laundry, shopping, and cleaning. You’re likely to need to be better at driving, writing, and negotiating: all difficult things. You’re likely to go through emotional cycles or depression as you think of the stuff you can’t do, or don’t understand, the friends you’re losing, or the things you’d like to do, but can’t. Don’t stress; you’ve got 5 years, or more. We’re very proud of you, and will try to help by tutoring, hugs, more-freedom, and the assurance that independence is worth the struggle. All beginnings are difficult, and this is a big beginning.
Switching schools includes the opportunity to reinvent yourself as something completely new. Most people do this to a greater or lesser extent. Embrace your inner weirdo, but not your inner crook. Try to invent yourself as something fun and active, not sinful or destructive. Try to be the young scholar, mechanic, artist, or athlete, not the young goth, gangster, or drug addict. High schools try to help here by exposing you to books and movies about alienated 16-20 year olds. Popular in my day were Great Expectations, The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, The Dead Poets Society, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse 5, and A Separate Peace. Take what comfort you can. School assignments will include essays on law, government, and God. Write honestly, with conviction. These assignments can help develop your life views and personality. We’ll try not to stifle you here, even when your opinions differ significantly from ours. Of course, if you come up with something truly stupid or awesome, we’ll tell you.
Your friends will start dating, or discussing boys, and you are almost certain to start looking at boys differently: first as exciting possibilities, and then as potential mates. Part of the attraction involves the ability to define yourself by the boy you choose. This is a comfort and a curse. The comfort is that it avoids you having to define yourself, or grow up quite. The curse is that the boy doesn’t know who he is either. You’ll find that some boys are nice and some are grounded, others are not. And some are really messed up. With the right kind, you’ll find you can do more as a pair than as a single. Eventually you’re likely to pair off; in our community that happens at about 21-24. When it happens, I hope it’s with a nice, grounded fellow. It works best if you first know who you are, but even otherwise, it can work. Couples sometimes discover who they are together. And, at that point the transition will be over. You’ll be a married adult; you’ll introduce yourself as Mrs Shnicklefritz, or as Dr. and Mr Schniklefritz, or whatever, and we’ll prepare ourselves to spoil our grandkids.
Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, proud father of you and your two older siblings. October 4, 2014. Though further along in their life paths, I can hope that the older siblings will enjoy these thoughts too. I’ve previously mused about US education, and whether ADHD was a real disease. For my older daughter’s 21st birthday, I invented a new mixed drink.