A few years ago I wrote a book for middle school boys, called Conversations with the Wise Uncle. I then wrote a similar book for young girls. My purpose was to model some of the key conversations young people need to guide them along their journey to being adults.
Most young teens are keenly focused on their present life and only rarely think about what their future will be like. The reality that there is another level of life after high school, the idea that they will leave home and take on adult responsibilities simply isn’t real to most teenagers. And yet, we want them to be interested in what may come in the years and decades ahead. Without the ability to envision the future context of their lives, why would schoolwork be important to them? Why would they care about the long-term behavior patterns they’re creating in their youth? Why would they think about the physical consequences of their sometimes risk-taking behavior if they never foresaw what could happen? Why should they care about their developing adolescent brain if life after adolescence isn’t real to them? For that matter, why should they care about fitness and nutrition? Without a long-range goal, why would they want to save money?
One of the conversations in my books had the purpose of helping a young boy and a young girl give serious consideration to their future. In this post I’ve excerpted the passage that describes how Chris’ uncle tried to make the boy’s future seem real to him.
Then his uncle gave him the ball of string. “Here, hold this while I pull out some of the string.” He measured a length as wide as his fist, and made a knot there. Then he measured another fist-width and made another knot. He continued doing this until he made ten knots. Then he cut the string with the knife.
“Do you know how old Alexander is?” he asked.
Alexander was a dachshund, Chris’s dog. “We’ve always had him. I guess he’s as old as I am.”
“Maybe a little less. I think your folks got him after you were born. Let’s say he’s ten years old.”
Uncle Ray stretched the knotted string across the length of the table. “Dachshunds live to be about 15 years.” He took the marker and made a mark halfway between the first knot and the second knot. “Think of the string as a hundred years. Right here is where Alexander is today. So you can see that if he stays healthy, he has at least five more years. Do you know why they named him Alexander?”
“Because of Alexander the Great?”
“That’s right. Your dad probably told you that Alexander was a brilliant Greek general a couple hundred years before the time of Christ. He commanded armies when he was a teenager not much older than you are. His armies went way beyond Greece and conquered every opposing force. His empire was huge, the largest ever in ancient times. Even today, 2,500 years later, the U.S. Army studies his tactics to learn how he did it.”
“Wow. Dad was in the Army before he met Mom. He’s been interested in wars and stuff ever since. That’s probably why he named our dog Alexander.”
“I bet you’re right. Alexander’s a wonderful companion, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He’s my buddy.”
“Appreciate him and love him all you can every day, Chris. Because dogs don’t live forever. We have them and we cherish them just like family, and eventually, their time is up. They pass away, just like people do.”
It made Chris a little sad to think about it. He felt uncomfortable talking about Alexander this way.
“We need to appreciate your Grandpa and Grandma every day, too. They’re in their mid-sixties.” He marked this on the string. “The average person lives 80 or 85 years. But your grandparents could live a lot longer. Lots of people live to be 90. Some live to be 100. Maybe you’ll live to be 100, Chris.” All this was plainly visible on the string. He saw that Grandma and Grandpa had quite a bit more time left.
“Right now, I’m 38 years old,” he said, and marked the string again, just short of the forty-year knot.
Then Uncle Ray said, “And this is you, right here.” He made a mark just past the ten-year knot. “You’ve got a long life ahead of you, partner.”
“Part of the reason Alexander the Great was so successful was that he had a great teacher. His teacher was Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. Man, was Alexander lucky!”
“I guess that makes me your Aristotle, doesn’t it? Since I’m always showing you how to do stuff.”
“Are you going to teach me how to be a general?”
“I don’t know about that. But you’re almost a teenager now, and I want to explain some important things to you.”
Chris’s heart started to beat faster. He wondered what his uncle had in mind.
“Let’s start with this string.” As Uncle Ray spoke, he marked the string. “When you finish high school you’ll be 18, right about here. If you to go to college, that will take four more years, which will put you right about here, age 22. By then hopefully you’ll know what you want to do in life. Maybe you’ll be an electrician or a businessman. Or a lawyer or an engineer. Maybe you’ll go to graduate school. Who knows? If you did, that would take another two or three years. After college, you’ll start your career, earning good money. See? You’re not even thirty years old yet.”
He moved his hand past the third knot. “After a while, you might meet a great woman and get married. And like your parents, you might have kids of your own.”
“I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”
“It’s hard to say what you’ll end up doing or what kind of career you’ll have. But you still have a lot of time to figure that out, as you can see. Eventually, you’ll retire, just as I hope to do about 20 or 30 years from now. By then, you’ll be older than I am now. And later your own kids will get older and maybe they’ll have kids, which would make you a grandpa yourself. So you see, Chris, you could have a great life. A long life.”
In my post, “The Jar of Marbles,” I describe how another adult handled this conversation differently.
Teaching young people to think about the future is one of the topics in Chapter 5 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.