And Most of All – Be Kind

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self? 

When my son graduated from high school in June, I wondered what advice might transcend the cliche commencement sentiments. Crowdsourcing the solution, I asked friends and family members to imagine that they could each go back in time and give their 18-year-old selves just three pieces of advice. What would they say, based on their lived experience? Approximately 50 people shared their thoughts. 

It turns out that the commencement cliches are on track, after all. Other than the really personal things (like don’t date that particular person freshman year of college!) some advice came up again and again. Here’s what people wish their 18-year-old selves had known or better understood:

  • Be kind. Even – or especially – when it isn’t easy.
  • Stay connected to your friends and family. Even as you grow and change.
  • Work hard – on and for the things you care about.
  • Be willing to make mistakes, take risks, and learn. Be ever-curious.
  • Travel as much as you can. You’ll see yourself, others, the world, and your home more clearly.
  • Take good care of yourself – your health (mind and body) is precious.
  • Be sensible with money. Save some from every check.
  • Be open to people – but also have good boundaries and trust your gut.
  • Have adventures of all shapes and sizes (many of them outdoors).
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.

But mostly, and across the board, almost to a person, the advice was to be kind.

These themes came from a group of people with differing levels of education, economic status, marital status, health, age, gender, race, faith, etc. Some have college degrees, some don’t. Some have PhDs from highly selective colleges, some didn’t finish high school. They are artists, waitresses, financiers, teachers, CEOs, and tree trimmers. Some are rich, some were rich and aren’t any more, some never were. They are from every faith (and lack thereof). Many are parents, but some aren’t. They live in urban, suburban, and rural areas in diverse parts of the country. They are old and not so old. They work in academia, in tech, in hospitals. They build things. They serve in the military.

Not one of these people told their 18-year-old self to go to a better college (or even to college), get better grades, find ways to be more prominent or famous, or to make more money. They talked about core values, and how best to live. Who to be, not what to do for a living.  Stay connected to others. Work hard on what interests you. Pay attention to your health. Do things that expand your world. Be kind.

What I hear from many parents I talk with is that these are the things they care about, too. And yet, somehow, our kids don’t believe us. Somehow, they are getting the messages that it is the college, the money, the network, the job, the status – that matter most in establishing the platform for a “good life.” At the same time, they aren’t sleeping enough. They are anxious and depressed at record levels. We have a disconnect.

Maybe everyone is simply saying what they think they should say rather than what they mean. Maybe they all secretly think status and wealth are the most important things. But somehow, I don’t think so. After decades of lived experience, it is kindness that gets elevated. And real learning. And health. Things we no longer take for granted. And the things we too often allow our kids to compromise in the race for high GPAs and competitive college admissions.

I believe this disconnect leaves us with questions that are incumbent on us – as parents and caregivers – to reflect on and answer: How do we communicate and model the values that are based on our deepest wisdom and aspiration – the advice we would give to ourselves if we had a do-over? And, how might we share what we most deeply care about and value with our children and teens so that they actually believe us? These are questions that (as both a mom and an educator) I will continue to think long and hard about. 

Mary Hofstedt, Ed.M., is the Community Education Director for Challenge Success. She oversees parent education and provides interactive presentations and workshops to share research-based resources and practices for parents to support the well-being of their children. Mary has held roles in education, curriculum and program development, and non-profit leadership for over 20 years.