“Wait until you get into the real world.”
I am not sure how many graduation speeches I have attended and participated in where a speaker starts exhorting the graduates about the challenges of the impending real world. As if menstruation, pimples, braces, crushes which are not reciprocated, getting cut from sports or drama, entering into abstract thought, realizing you are not developing as quickly in the locker room as others, trying to figure out one’s identity, getting made fun of on social media, processing loneliness, and wondering if you will ever be popular are not real. Every season of life has its intense joys and challenges.
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One of the reasons this era is so tricky to parent is that, historically, adolescence is a recent phenomenon. Until the early 1940s, the majority of Americans lived on the farm, which meant that seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds worked. It was the nature of living on a farm. All hands on deck. A team effort for the simple reason of survival. Children had many more responsibilities at a younger age, because that is how families had to function. There were no graduation speakers in the early 1930’s in Oklahoma during the height of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, who came to speak to adolescents about the challenges of the futuristic real world.
Teenagedom is a culture which was created in late 1940’s after the defeat of the Nazis, the Japanese, and the Italians. Prosperity entered into this country at record proportions, giving middle class and working class families access to a different level of material goods. Along with that economic reality came the advent of teenagers and adolescence, who were able to see a fantasized reality of themselves through the new discovery of television with its dramas and situation comedies.
Anthropologically, we are only two generations in on what teenagers are all about. Our upset at their laziness in not cleaning their rooms, not picking up after themselves, and not understanding how hard we are working to provide for them, is in some ways more about us, than about them. They are in their real world, which sociologically we have helped to create. And that real world is one which is very tricky to navigate, so tricky that no adult I have ever met has ever told me that they wanted to return to the slings and arrows of adolescent fortunes.
Sepkowitz is the head of Charlotte Country Day’s middle school. This came from a weekly message he sends to school parents.