Though both my own children are now in university, I remember the anxiety I felt as they each prepared for their high school proms. It was as if they were leaping from a cliff and there was nothing much I could do except hope the water below was safe. I knew there would be opportunities to drink, abuse drugs, have sex, and be in cars with inexperienced drivers. I knew there would be fears for the future and grief for what was being left behind. And I knew they would feel awkward telling me how scared they were at exactly the moment when they were supposed to be very happy and fiercely independent.
Here’s five things I found the courage to tell them, though I’ll admit it is easier to write them than it is to say them. If you’re like me, you may want to rehearse first.
1) Some decisions have a lifetime of consequences. A tattoo is permanent, an early pregnancy leaves an indelible memory that never fades (no matter what one chooses to do about the pregnancy), and a car accident can rob you of your future if you’re the one driving. Prom night is the end of one phase of life and the beginning of the next. You need to decide before you leave home tonight what you want that new life to look like.
2) You’ll need to go further in school. Though it may feel like you’ve just finished a huge part of your education, in fact most young people go on to some post-secondary education. And if you think that’s all you’ll need, think again. Over 80% of graduates from university do another degree or some other formal training. Tonight, catch your breath and celebrate, but remember, a long road to employability is still in front of you.
3) Drugs and alcohol are choices we make, when we’re ready. Though tonight is a big night, it may not be the night you want to experiment with things that can do your body harm. While I am sure you will eventually drink underage (if you haven’t already) and maybe use drugs, you need to be sure this is the right time. Do you have a safety plan? Do you have a strategy to avoid getting into a dangerous situation while drunk or stoned? You’re too old for me to tell you what to do, but I want to let you know I’m here to help you anticipate problems and figure out solutions that keep you safe.
4) Enjoy the thrill of sex. That doesn’t mean you have to “go all the way.” It can mean flirting and kissing and petting and all the wonderful things our bodies can do to one another. I want you to know that kind of excitement, and the rush of tumbling in love. But I also need you to decide before you leave the house how much is enough. I’m not naïve. 60% of teenagers have been sexually active at least once by the time they graduate high school. I just want to be sure that you don’t confuse the thrill of sexual excitement with the pressures to do things you really don’t want to do yet.
5) You won’t always be happy. Even as you get all dressed up and glow with the anticipation of this coming night, keep in mind that there will be times in your life that are painful and there will be many, so many, setbacks. Tonight, throw yourself into life, and savour it fully. Make memories that are full of giddy heart-stopping joy and grieving tears of imminent separations. Revel in it all because these will be the memories that carry you through the difficult times that give your life meaning.
And with that, kiss your child and push them gently out your front door. Make sure it is left unlocked and that your phone is handy in case they need to call. If you’re fortunate like most of us are, your child will find their way home, or call if they need you. Then, tomorrow, you’ll sit down over orange juice and toast served well beyond noon, and hear stories that remind you of your own prom. And you’ll likely smile and nod and daydream back through all the adventures that came after you put the fancy gowns and tuxedos away.