Graduation: From What To What? Media Moments Of Expectation

mortar-boardJune 10, 2009 Yesterday my daughter ‘graduated’ from eighth grade, and I found myself marveling at the whole commencement falderal as being a bit surreal…

It was lovely, in a ‘life event’ kind of way, but with a rented performing arts center stage, anxious kids wanting things to be ‘perfect,’ parents whooping and hollering and fist-pumping as junior walked across stage and all the school preparations and anticipation leading up to “the big day” it all seemed a bit much.

Laden with subtext of “age compression” (kids growing older younger) and “Affluenza,” I couldn’t help but pick up the phone to commiserate with my dear ol’ dad, expecting a scholarly, “shouldn’t they be using the money on education” tone…

Instead, I got a zinger.


Of ALL people HE took me to task for my flippancy, saying, “well it IS a big deal, going into high school…it’s…it’s…well, it’s  a milestone.”

Say what, dad?

As I tried to wrap my head around this statement from a man who epitomizes Brokaw’s ‘The Greatest Generation’ (WWII, the depression era, the works) I kept thinking:

“Oh, I see, he must’ve meant that back then some kids only HAD an 8th grade education, working hard on the farm or in the mills, so it’s a milestone etc. etc.”

Nope. Not what he meant…

I asked him to expound, and he basically touched on the whole “coming of age” bit being served up by the media and the school principal himself…

It stunned me like a bracer across the cheek…et tu Daddy-o? My  85-year old conservative, former Naval Intelligence Officer father with a “why do all kids expect a trophy for breathing” anti-entitlement mindset?

Color me incredulous…I did NOT see THAT one coming.

dollar-signI refuse to become a part of the whole consumption-driven culture of “what’d you get?” swapping tales of graduation gifts and consumption cues…

And of ALL people I thought my dad would see the entire pomp and circumstance as contrived ‘fluff and stuff’…And I’m sure he would’ve concurred on some level if he’d have ‘gotten the memo’…quite literally. Seriously, the biggest indicator of the whole media influence/pop culture zeitgeist came to light with the graduation “myth-busting” memo distributed to all parents…

Maybe I should have read THAT to him aloud instead. It was a classic, addressing perceived ‘issues’ that would’ve never even crossed my mind:

MYTH: “you must buy two dresses for your daughter and rent a tux for your son” REALITY: “generally girls wear their dance dresses under their graduation robes” MYTH: “there will be a super private party after the dance” REALITY: “there will be no school-sponsored party other than the dance” MYTH: “everyone will go to the dance with a date” REALITY: “most students arrive and dance in groups” etc.

The whole ‘late night party hearty, fancy schmansy limos and expensive graduation gift’ messaging has been heavily seeded via marketing AND media … This is 8th grade, people, not a faux fandango of the prom!!


Spoiled brat shows like ‘MTV’s My Super Sweet 16,’ the CW channel’s vixens with vapid values, and ABC Family’s core appeal to the middle school set with media as super peer for normative behavioral cues is part of the perceived ‘expectations’ painted onto the screen (yes, yes, I know, ABC Family is ‘meant’ to be for 16; but how many parents know that?)

It’s also why so many kids feel validated by appearance based-worth, counting how many times they get asked to slow dance in a ‘hot’ mini-dress or 4-inch silver heels or whatever else makes makes me want to lose my cookies on the APA study of the harm of early sexualization.

Mind you, I’d already found my own inner peace with the notion that “If it’s important to her, it’s important to me” but engaging with the hoopla is far different than embracing it.

applauseWatching the adults really made me realize we just may have a YOUTH backlash on our hands toward civility, as long as they come up with the concept themselves. (go for it, kids! I dare ya!)

Parents were given stern ‘hold the applause ’til the end’ directives countless times, yet they insisted on doing the goofy rowdy, catcalls and hollers which made kids feel like their popularity hung on how loud people clapped…

That’s not even including the ill-mannered fops who shouted their whereabouts on BlueTooth headsets during the Pledge of Allegiance, and those with families the size of a small developing nation cordoning off rows for relatives in ‘save the seat’ style…ugh.

I know, I know, “lighten up” and enjoy the ride; not everything is a sociological microcosm…

And I realize this doesn’t necessarily mean the net generation that’s changing our world, as author Don Tapscott says in “Grown Up Digital” will fall prey to the marketing cues of ‘Packaging Girlhood’ or march like lemmings into the faux norms of Secret Life of the American Teenager (about to begin season two on 6-22 if you want to see ‘surreal’)


It just seems the SPARKS igniting this generation (e.g. brains, inquisitiveness, the entrepreneur economy, youth service and volunteering, a paradigm shift toward the “why” over the “how” of life path pursuits) are being tamped down in favor of ‘snuffing out’ childhood in the rush to grow up…

The kids I work with are FULL of ‘sparks…and not all the ‘hubba-hubba-hormonal’ kind.

I get really fatigued by the one-dimensional mass media portrayals served up in the “mating for ratings” teen drama game…

That’s why I really enjoyed this article called “15 Actions To Support 15 Year Olds” (and teens in general) by Anastasia Goodstein at Ypulse, giving a glimpse of the @15 initiative.

It presents another ‘face’ of the American teenager…Encouragement of their OWN personal ‘sparks’ to light up a more multi-dimensional view than the whole notion of media and marketing defining kids before they can even define themselves.

teenvoiceShe sums the ‘@15’ research seeding success by:

1.) giving kids the energy and motivation to do well in life

2.) assessing how much kids feel ‘heard’giving voice to their views

3.) pairing mentors, resources and relationships that can help kids nurture their strengths and visions

All three of the interlocking concepts in the “Teen Voice 2009”(25 pp. pdf report) are not very different from what we’re doing right here at Shaping Youth…

The lingo is different, but conceptually, we’re  very much aligned, tapping into kids’ strengths and preferences from within.

True, I never thought I’d be quoting “15 actions” as “Graduation Guidelines” from a hawker of electronics…

BUT…this list is universally valid.

Best Buy planted their corporate social responsibility flag deep into the earth when they seeded a partnership with Ashoka Youth Venture who I respect, admire, and have written about often So we’ll see…fingers crossed.

Like any pro-social initiative, much depends on the execution, and whether they’re using their platform to uplift, support and inspire by enabling access, training, opportunity and enrichment to kids’ lives, or whether they’re more interested in seeding and selling the latest gizmos and techno-wizardry to escalate market share.

So far, the number of vast initiatives and financial support go far beyond ‘goodwashing’ judging from their partner orgs, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Mercy Corps, Communities in Schools, Think (mtv) and tons more.

These could be Graduating Guidelines for the bridge TO or FROM middle school much less the obvious high school/collegiate interplay.

See if you agree:

15 Actions to Support 15 Year Olds: @15 Initiative; Best Buy

151) Ask teens about things that matter to them. Ask them about their spark and why it energizes them. Ask them for their perspectives on issues in your community, the nation, and the world. Listen to their thoughts before offering your perspective.

2) Give them time, if they haven’t yet identified their sparks or issues they care deeply about. It may be okay that they are still exploring many options and interests. Be patient, while also helping them be intentional and reflective about who they are.

3) Introduce them to others who share their spark or commitments. If they are deeply concerned about the water quality in the local river, introduce them to someone you know with influence or expertise. If they love to play the saxophone, introduce them to a friend in a jazz band.

4) Believe in them, even when they may not believe in themselves. Expect a lot of them, knowing that they will usually rise to the occasion — particularly with the right support and encouragement.

5) Help them figure out the next little step for moving forward. They may not know what to do next to voice their concerns, nurture their spark, or find an after-school opportunity that they would really enjoy. Help them think through the options and figure out what their next step can be.

6) Challenge negative perceptions when you hear them. Adults (and other teens) may belittle a young person’s interests or concerns as impractical or trivial. Teens need allies to stand up for them.

7) Link them with people of multiple generations. Teens may seem to only want to be with friends their own age (and sometimes they do). But they also can appreciate a broader web of relationships, both with younger children (sharing their spark with the little ones) as well as with older adults (who may have lots of experience in their area of spark).

8.) Focus on sparks and youth voice in youth programs. Encourage participating youth to share their gifts, talents, passions, and interests, then decide together how these can be integrated into programming. Equip adult leaders and volunteers to focus on building relationships with all of the youth who participate.

9) Address sparks and give teens a voice in schools. Encourage young people to do projects related to their sparks and interests. Tap their creativity, gifts, leadership, and commitments to strengthen the school and enrich its climate, knowing that young people who are actively pursuing their sparks and who feel they have a voice in their school are more likely to be engaged and do well academically.

10) Find out what gets in their way when they’re stuck. Listen and help them figure out ways around the problem. If needed, connect them with other people who may also be able to help them move forward.

11) Don’t impose your ideas on them. They may be on a different path than you might have expected — or hoped for. Listen to them and ask them questions. And avoid speaking in critical or unsupportive ways that discourage them from pursuing legitimate interests or concerns.

12) Tap them as volunteers and leaders in the community. Recognize the ways they can contribute now. Particularly try to find opportunities to engage them as leaders and contributors that tap their interests, concerns, and skills. They’ll do a better job, be more invested, and grow more in the process.

13) Introduce them to new interests and issues. Expanding their horizons is an important part of helping them be well-rounded. And having multiple talents and interests is better than having one.

14) At the same time, help them prioritize and focus. Sometimes they can get caught up in trying so many things or tackling so many issues that they get overwhelmed or discouraged. Learning to make choices and focus is an important life skill.

15) Support them every step of the way. Cultivating sparks and finding one’s voice can lead in unexpected directions. As you build your relationship with teens, encourage them as they grow and develop, celebrating the successes and fulfillment that come as they find their own voice and passions on their journey into adulthood.

Worthy words…Sounds almost like ‘commencement address’ material…

And readers, lest you think I’m a TOTAL curmudgeon, though I did NOT spring for the big ticket vacation, ‘rad grad item,’ smart phone device, or grand soiree for 8th grade ‘graduation’…

I DID get $20 lawn tickets to The Fray in concert at Shoreline on Aug. 1st..and she thought that was pretty dang cool, as did her “BFF” who will accompany her. (ok, she still needs a driver so I get to go too. 😉

Happy graduation everyone!



  1. Steve Richards says

    Amy… A very enjoyable perspective on ways to think about thinking about our teens…

    My daughter recently graduated from HS and I have another about to graduate from college, and these traditional milestones have been dominating my family life of late, filling all parties with some increased self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment.

    I’m not sure we can have too many of those, provided it doesn’t turn gratuitous. “Oh congrats. you’re the best. you took out the trash!”…

    Anyhow, I am pleased to see your reference to the Best Buy list, it’s great and I see uses for my teens and even many of the adults in my life.. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, Steve…

    Good point on the use of the lists for ADULTS as well as kids!!!

    It does universally apply; a bit wild that it would come from a retail branding focus with significant crossover that pertains, but that’s a good sign that BB might be ‘walkin’ the walk’ in terms of ‘refining’ rather than ‘mining’ kids interests and endeavors giving lipservice to build market share.

    Ultimately, that’s a win-win, as they’ll build trust in both quadrants (parents AND kids) where it becomes a “gee, next time I’m in the market for a such and such I’ll support xyz brand that’s doing something good” rather than one that shouts the loudest with the most media buys and dollar-driven mindshare.

    Again…we’ll ‘see how they roll’ as the kids would say. 😉

  3. Amy, I loved this post and agree with every word you wrote about Tuesday’s event. But I also felt a pang when I watched some of the kids and heard the whoops from their audience supporters and thought “this may be the biggest moment they ever have”. My own child knows we expect high school graduation, then college graduation, and perhaps even more if she’s so inclined.

    She was excited about the dance, so I enjoyed supporting her fancy dress and silver shoe (yes!) purchase, but I was also happy to see her in jeans, layered tank tops, and pony tail the next morning.

    No big ticket gift here – her gift is a day in SF with mom and no little sisters.

    Thanks for passing along the 15 actions. “Listen to their thoughts before offering your perspective.” Ah, that’s hard to do…must remember…

  4. Hey Kris, thanks for the note…”the biggest moment ever” line opened up some fresh thinking there too, so thanks for that. The dance was ‘huge’ in terms of focal point on this end too…and yes, mine wore a fancy dress and heels too, which I’m thankful we can reuse in a couple weeks for a Colorado wedding, woohoo! (and no slam on the silver shoes, darlin’…but yes, your status line DID give me the idea, it was actually one of ’em that wore ’em and became about 6’2″ that I was laughing about…towering in ‘tall and proud of it’ mode…Fun, actually)

    Love the gift you’re giving her…all too often my dear one forgets that the ‘lonely only’ phenom (in which I always have a pack-o-kids, since she’s such a social bug) goes both ways…

    She takes advantage (sans appreciation) of unfettered access to both of us when others have siblings/split time scenarios that DO make those ‘solo days’ a treat.

    When she treats us like limo driving pond scum prompting parental pushback from either quadrant (we trade miff moments to ensure ‘equal opportunity’ angst 😉 it makes me want to sell her to gypsies, but all in all, I think we’re pretty dang lucky, don’t you?

    p.s. Oh! And btw, in my interview with Susan Linn (CCFC/Harvard psychologist honcho) she said, “So how old IS your daughter these days?”

    And when I replied “almost 14” she got dead silent, followed by a melancholy, ‘ooh…tough one’

    That actually served as a nice ‘developmental’ reminder that ‘this too will pass.’ 🙂

    p.p.s. “Listen to their thoughts before offering your perspective.” IS particularly tough when armed with media ammo from the ‘inside’…and hear her insistent ‘know it all’ reverb about how that’s ‘not how it IS mom’ in terms of marketing influence/manipulation etc. when I’ve just come out of a conference surrounded by same.

    Pretty wild to have a ‘living lab’ and hold my tongue to see how it’s ‘processed’ so I know how to counter-market properly…It’s strange being so immersed in this field, and cherry-picking the good stuff while being exposed to some ‘wth?’ moments that just leave me reeling like ‘WHAT’ are these people THINKING?!?!?(like that link you just sent me, which I’ll share with readers before I comment on it:

    In talking to several ‘moms in the industry’ they seem to think it’s unique to advertising/media etc….Do you? What about tech? There’s a reason there’s a ‘She’s Geeky’ UnConference, ya know? So we don’t have to endure the sophomoric presentations like that…

    Ok, off topic…I’ll hush. That was a doozy though. bleh.

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