The moment has finally arrived. Like every other parent who is in disbelief when their “baby” flies the coop, wondering why time hasn’t stood still as they have gone from toothless grins to graduation gowns, I have to face the fact that after next Tuesday, I will not have any children left at home.
On a practical level, that means that at approximately 3 pm every day, I won’t have the automatic thought, “What in the world am I going to make for dinner?” followed by a doleful assessment of what I can create relative to the ingredients in the house.
It also means that our aging dog won’t have anyone to greet as familiar backpacks thump to the ground, music starts, and back-and-forth dialogue begins about homework, school obligations and other assorted subjects. Short of the noise I make, the house will be still almost all the time.
Needless to say, this milestone has been met with bittersweet acceptance, along with a frantic desire to say as much as I can in terms of last-minute parenting advice before we pull away from the dorms in Pittsburgh. However, there are only so many times you can say things like, “Check in with us once a week, please,” or “Have you thought about a plan B if rugby destroys your surgically-repaired shoulder?” without your child deciding that you are the equivalent of white noise.
As a result, I have compiled five of my current and best suggestions (that means that there are more to be shared at the right time) for my son to consider as he launches himself into a new environment where he knows almost no one, and is sure to be looking for new kinds of people and activities to fill his time and create memories that will last him a lifetime and shape the kind of man he will become. As usual, all of my tips are gleaned from the world of Positive Psychology, which is grounded in research around flourishing and thriving.
1. Be nice to everyone you meet. One of the durable lessons of Positive Psychology is that your relationships with other people largely determine the quality of your life. As a result, it behooves all of us to smile at others even when we don’t feel like it, say “yes” to requests for assistance even if it inconveniences us a bit, and extend a bit of compassion to people who are having a hard time with something – schoolwork, family issues or challenging setbacks. In fact, Adam Grant’s research at Wharton has found that it’s “givers,” not “matchers” or “takers” who reap the greatest rewards in life (as long as you don’t avoid the red flags about people who will take serial advantage of you). One friend told me that growing up on food stamps meant that every single act of kindness shown to her or her family was burned into their collective memory because insults, mocking and derision were more common. Even homeless people say that simply having another human being meet their eyes matters more than a few coins because it conveys respect and kindness, not pity.
2. Don’t just be a “Facebook liker.” Instead of displaying real character, I’ve noticed that countless people default to just “liking” everything about everyone else on Facebook instead of having an opinion about anything. For example, too often people allow negative behavior, gossiping and bullying to get out of hand without standing up for what is right, in spite of the findings that bullying can and will stop when just one strong person has the courage to point out wrongdoing in unambiguous and powerful ways. Only then will “followers” agree that a wrong has been done, but that courage is missing in a lot of people. One of the most important phrases I heard in adulthood is that if your goal is to have everyone like you in life, you will stand for nothing and will miss every opportunity to carve your character by standing up for those who need support. So while point #1 is about doing nice things, point #2 is about not simply living to be liked, but about having the courage of unpopular conviction at times, even if it would be easier to hit “like.”
3. Get away from your computer and your gadgets every day. Texting and driving reduces attention levels by 91% – which is far worse than inattention from drunk driving – so give some thought to what it’s like to be in your presence if you are constantly checking text messages, sending Twitter updates and liking someone’s Facebook status (already not okay because of point #2). Brand-new research has found that too much time spent on Facebook increases depression and loneliness, particularly among young adults, and every hour of screen time reduces your connection to peers and adults by at least 5%. So allot some time every day to being with someone else without having a wireless connection or screen near you. So if that means playing rugby, which is hard to do with a phone in hand, Dad and I are okay with that. (You still need a Plan B, though.)
4. Make sure that your environment brings out the best in you. The science of “priming” finds that our behaviors and thoughts are shaped by what surrounds us. For example, simply hearing people around you using phrases like “calm down,” or seeing subliminal messages like “rest” causes the self-regulation center in your brain to fire up. Watching videos that portray relationship aggression promotes the same behavior, and even music with depressing lyrics promotes sadness. So what does this mean? Pay attention to what’s around you, including the conversations you partake in, the quality of what you are reading (that includes text messages), and what behavior prompts you might be receiving both consciously and subconsciously in every room or gathering you enter. If you are bombarded in ways that aren’t shaping you in positive ways, it’s your job to change it.
5. Create a “Best Possible Self.” There is mounds of research showing the myriad benefits of doing this simple exercise that prompts you to write about your life in ten years as if everything has gone as well as possible. Research has found that just taking twenty minutes, three days in a row, to spin into the future and write about such details as what you are doing professionally, who you live with, what your hobbies are, and even where you live can change your outlook and behavior in profound ways. If you do this for three days – even if you have to do bullet points instead of full sentences – you can dip deep into the recesses of your dreams and bring them alive in concrete ways. It’s been found that people who do this are happier, more optimistic, more likely to save money, clearer about conflicting goals, and more likely to commit to short-term steps toward longer-term projects. Being proactive about your life is always going to bear more fruit than reacting to what happens to you. And even if you don’t reach those specific goals from the exercise, you will go farther simply by having them, and you will derive far more joy from just being on that path.
I have at least fifteen more “tips” that I’d like to share, but like all things, less is more, particularly if you want to have a receptive audience in the future. So, dear departing son, stay tuned. Mom’s wisdom is bottomless! (And don’t forget about that Plan B stuff – you only get one pair of shoulders in life.)