Let’s cut graduates a break

2 mins read
Graduating seniors Samantha Grella and Justin Allen take a selfie after participating in commencement ceremonies at St. Mary's College Preparatory High School in Manhasset, N.Y., May 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Last year, my oldest son graduated high school with flying colors. He received a great college scholarship and had a lot to be proud of. So, you’d think he wouldn’t look utterly fatigued each time an aunt, uncle, hairdresser, Sunday School teacher, the guy at the deli, our priest, the trashman — literally everyone — asked him: “What’s next in your life?”

I chalked up my first-born’s conversational reticence to the fact that he’s quiet by nature, which is why I’m finding it curious that the same exact phenomenon is now happening with my second son who’s a total extrovert. This graduate is following in his big brother’s footsteps. He has a great GPA and a few college scholarships lined up in the fall, and yet he grimaces at the “what’s next?” question, too.

Navigating post-graduation conversations

“I just get sick of it,” he explained when the subject came up at the dinner table the other night. He had a few friends over and they chimed in as well.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” one of the girls said, “I mean, I think I know what I’m doing after graduation, but that might change. Also, I don’t want to go to college and lots of people find that disappointing.”

My oldest son who was home for the weekend added his voice to the mix: “All this focus on what we plan to do next gets old. I know everyone means well — they’re genuinely curious and just want to show they care. But yeah, it gets old.”

Finding our true value

The teens and my husband launched into a meaningful conversation about how as Christians we should find our true value in who we are — children of God — not in what we do, or how much (or how little) we accomplish. This dinnertime chat brought St. John Paul II’s wisdom to mind, specifically from times when he was addressing teens at World Youth Day.

“Only in Christ can [we] fully understand [our] dignity as persons created and loved by God,” he said at the 1993 gathering.

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son,” he reminded young people in 2002.

I’d wager that this late, great pope would agree that we are not the sum of our successes either, but again, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”

Alternative conversation starters

I’m certain my teens and their friends aren’t the only ones struggling with this issue of being questioned ad nauseam about their future plans by well-meaning adults (who are not being rude or immoral in any way). I’ve heard the subject discussed among fellow parents and a little on social media. But, in general, I don’t think there’s enough awareness of how we should be more sensitive to our graduates’ emotional needs.

So, how’s a genuinely curious, well-intended relative supposed to connect with that awesome grad in his or her life?

The teens at my dinner table made the following suggestions:

“Just say, ‘It’s great to see you!'” Or, “You look good!” Or, “How are you today?”

“Focus on the here and now,” seemed to be the consensus, “Just say, ‘congratulations!’ And don’t forget to give us money!”

There was a lot of laughter and even a few quirky ideas: “Ask grads about their favorite sugar cereal or video games for a change!”

Supportive gestures

Personally, my biggest takeaway is that even a highly accomplished graduate with great potential often feels unintended pressure by receiving such a high volume of questions about his future.

So, seize the opportunity to be an awesome aunt or a fun uncle and ask about something else instead. Say a prayer for the graduate and throw him some cash if you’re able. Go ahead and ask the grad’s mom about his plans if you’re dying to know. If she’s anything like me, she’ll be more than happy to fill you in!

Sarah Robsdottir

Sarah Robsdottir is a Catholic convert and homeschooling mom to seven sons. Her debut novel, “Brave Water,” is available at Voyage Publishing. Visit Sarah at www.sarahrobsdottir.com.