8 Things I Would Tell My Teenage Self if I had a Time Machine

A couple of weeks ago, my son became a 15 year-old.  I don’t have a lot of concrete or distinct memories of my 15th birthday, but I do remember being in full-on teenager mode at that age, ready to take on the world and being positive that I knew WAY more about what was going on in the world than my parents and other adults. My friends and I? We were relevant. We were cool (or so we told ourselves). We were ready to get on with our lives already. My parents? They just didn’t “get it.” I was certain they couldn’t relate. Even though I knew rationally that they had once been teenagers themselves, that was all very abstract, and times had CHANGED, man.

So I listened politely and nodded while I pegged my stonewashed jeans, turned up the collar on my shirt and unloaded half a can of Aquanet on my spiral-permed hair (no judging please; this was 1988). I routinely rolled my eyes, tested my limits with all things and bristled at having a curfew. My friends and I would commiserate with each other about our unreasonable and unyielding parents, sure that in the distant, DISTANT future when we were parents ourselves, surely we would be more in tune with our kids. In short, much of what I heard at that age didn’t really sink in. I was so (wrongly) confident that I didn’t NEED anyone else’s advice; I was (yep, wrongly again) sure I was a grown-up already at 15.

Now that I am in my 40s, I would give just about anything for a time machine to take me back so I could try to talk some sense into my 15 year-old self, and impart some of the wisdom that I see now in the rear-view mirror of life.  Here are the top 8 things I would try to tell younger me: 

  1. Listen.  Every day you are surrounded by people from all walks of life.  Everyone has had different experiences; everyone has their own joys and struggles and has a different story to share.  When you engage others and listen (truly listen) to them, you will learn so much, and your life will be that much richer.  But we need to be quiet ourselves sometimes in order to hear, and to truly absorb what’s going on around us.
  2. Slow Down.  Enjoy being 15 for more than 5 minutes, and try not to be in such a hurry to grow up.  There’s no need to be in such a rush to get a job, or get a driver’s license, or any of those things you think are going to improve your life right now.  Go on more bike rides.  Sleep in (every chance you get!) Spend all summer at the pool or the lake.  Adult life, with all of its responsibilities, will still be there when you’re 18.  I promise. 
  3. Practical Advice.  Start saving for retirement as soon as you get a full-time job.  Buy full-coverage auto insurance.  Keep an eye on your credit report.  Eat your vegetables and fruits.  Your metabolism really DOES slow down as you age! (This part of the conversation with younger-Me would take a while; I have no shortage of practical advice.)
  4. Education Matters.  I know you’re in a hurry to grow up and be done with school already, but you need to do everything you can to get everything you can out of your education.  Grades matter, but you also need to try a little bit harder to actually absorb more of what’s being taught.  When I said earlier that you should listen more, that included listening to your teachers.  They know what they’re talking about, and most of them really want to help you succeed in life.  You have to meet them halfway though, and put in the effort. 
  5. Be Genuine.  As cliché as this sounds, be genuine and true to yourself in all things, and be genuine in your relationships with others.  If you are afraid someone won’t like or respect you if you act like yourself, you need to take a step back to question whether that person is someone with whom you really want to spend your time and your energy.  Surround yourself with people who like you for who YOU are, not for who you think they want you to be.
  6. Faith Matters.  I know you think you’ve got this whole faith and religion thing figured out at 15, but please keep an open mind.  When you meet others from different backgrounds with different beliefs and faiths, seize the opportunity to learn from them.  And, remember piece of advice #1 (“Listen.”)  You’ll learn so much more by accepting that others believe different things than you believe, and realizing that those differences in belief don’t make either one of you “good” or “bad.”  Enough said. 
  7. Family Matters.  Talk to your parents and grandparents, and to your aunts and uncles more often, and glean as much knowledge as you can.  Remember what I said earlier about listening?  Yeah, that applies here too.  I know you “know” they won’t be here forever, in the same abstract way you know your parents were once your age.  But, it’s true.  Your time to talk to them and learn from them is limited.  Cherish every conversation and every hug. 
  8. Friendships Matter.  BE there for your friends, and don’t ever assume you’ll have another chance to see them or talk to them to tell them how you feel.  When one of your friends is hurting emotionally, or struggling with the demons of substance abuse or depression, do everything in your power to help them.  Find someone who can help them if you cannot help them yourself.  It’s great that you and your friends are there to cheer each other on and to celebrate successes, but part of friendship includes being there during the dark times too.  Help each other in the good times and the bad, and your relationships will be so much deeper for it.   

I’d tell my younger self all of this and more, until I was blue in the face. But the sad reality is that at 15, I probably wouldn’t have listened to 41 year-old me any more than I listened to my parents; I would have likely simply politely nodded before uncapping the hairspray, my mind already thinking about hanging out with my friends on the weekend.

My son just turned 15. While he up to this point hasn’t exhibited even one-tenth of the teenage attitude I had in spades at his age, I’m sure he’s feeling many of the same things. Already, we hear a lot of sighs, and “I know”s from him. The “Duh”s, while not spoken aloud, are certainly implied.

This stage is surely one of life’s greatest practical jokes; I have so much I want to share with him to arm him to be prepared for the twists and turns that life undoubtedly has in store for him, but because he is a Teenager with a capital “T”, it’s not all going to sink in. I want to warn him that life isn’t going to be fair, people aren’t always going to be nice, and that things won’t always go the way they should, and that all of that is OK. I just have to have faith and trust that at least a smidgeon of the message will get through. He is his own person and is going to make his own mistakes; we all do, right? It’s all part of the process we call “life.”  But I hope they will be meaningful mistakes, and that he will learn from them so he can grow as a human being.

If he cannot get his hands on a time machine, maybe somewhere along the way my son will gain the wisdom that I missed, and will uncover the secret of talking to teenagers so he can impart all of this wonderful knowledge to his children someday.

If YOU could go back in time to talk to your 15 year-old self, what is one piece of wisdom you would share?

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