She sits in my office, light flickering across her tear-stained face. Another day of advanced classes and high-achievement academics has left her weary and empty.
She tells me the things we all think but are afraid to say. I hear her words and my heart breaks as she compares herself to the kids striving for Ivy League colleges and she confesses quietly that she feels small in comparison. Her message is simple and one I believe is often true for too many teenagers: I’ll never measure up.
And I wonder how we got here. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and graduated with less than 150 students in my class. Most of us headed to the nearest state or private college and a handful went out of state or to military academies. Looking back, the choices seemed fairly simple. Pick a major you’re interested in and a college that’s affordable.
Honestly, that seemed like more than enough.
Today’s teens seem plagued by so much more pressure and I can’t help but wonder if their 24/7 access to media and digital content has made their worlds so much bigger than their brains can possibly absorb. Instead of just following along with the journey of your close friends and classmates, they are bombarded daily with messages of do more and be more. It all seems like too much for the average adolescent.
They are told to take advanced classes so they can get into the best college; and that they must get into the best college, so they can have a great career. And of course, the opposite is true as well. Take regular classes and you risk falling short. Go to a regular college and you might be behind the curve or not reach your potential.
While some teens, like my oldest, take this message and feel enormous pressure to do more and be more, others seem to go into hiding and fail to launch at all. I guess this would all be fine if our teens were thriving, but the statistics show that they aren’t. Teenage depression rates are rising quickly according to this recent study from BlueCross BlueShield.
While we grieve for this, I’m not sure that we should be surprised. Today’s teens often spend more time laughing at a screen than laughing with each other. They focus more on taking the perfect selfie than on being self-reliant. I wonder how many dinner tables have become holding patterns for backpacks and homework rather than holding the conversations that used to occur around the table.
I’m not saying my kids are immune to any of this or that anyone, in particular, is to blame. I often question if generations from now we will look back and feel that those of us parenting the iGeneration were completely bamboozled. The iPhones and iPads snuck in right under our noses like a Trojan horse.
I don’t have all the answers to any of this, but as I sit and stare at my daughter and ponder her sense of never measuring up, it occurs to me that maybe I don’t want her to measure up.
Maybe I think the measuring stick of our celebrity-worshiping, me-centric culture is a broken mirror that pales in comparison to the unique person she was created to be. So I tell her the one thing I know with certainty.
I tell her that I wish her an ordinary life.
I wish her a beautiful, messy, ordinary life full of failures and triumphs.
I wish her a life full of quiet moments and shared memories. I hope she can find a way to tune out the dream big voices and remember that some of the most amazing things in the world began with the smallest whisper.
I wish her a life full of more gazing at sunsets than staring at a screen.
I want her to experience more walks in nature and the freedom of a life lived small.
I want her to know that an ordinary life lived well can never really be measured in likes or status updates.
I hope she knows what it feels like to linger and enjoy simple pleasures. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
As I glance at her almost adult face, I remember her as a young toddler. Hair and eyes wild, she was always searching for the next bug on the sidewalk or puddle to jump in. I wish she could see herself the way I see her. I wish she could know that she’s enough just as she is. No college acceptance letter or prestigious audition invitation will change that. I wish for her to remember who she is and worry less about the road in front of her. The path will be made straight eventually and in the meantime, perhaps a little wonder and grace will appear. Maybe she will start to hear her own song again.
I believe she will.