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Talking to Graduating Seniors About Independence

Independence isn't something given; it's something earned.

It’s a common springtime question: “What advice would you give graduating seniors to help them on their next step to more independence?”

My answer, “I would have five pieces of advice: Speak up, stand up, show up, keep up, and own up in life, and you will be able to make your independent way.”

Start with speaking up. The opposite of speaking up is shutting up. People who can’t speak up for themselves can’t make themselves known, have no declarative way to get their needs met or their opinions expressed, and being silent in disagreement they may end up living (often resentfully) on other people’s terms. They can’t depend upon themselves to express and advocate for themselves. Speaking up is an act of independence.

Next is standing up. The opposite of standing up is backing down. People who back down on what matters to them end up compromising themselves. They allow or go along with what they basically don’t agree with and in the process sacrifice integrity: the degree to which their actions match their values. Going whichever the social wind blows, they have no inner ethical compass they can trust for guidance. They can’t depend upon themselves for right direction. Standing up is an act of independence.

Next is showing up. The opposite of showing up is giving up. People who give up don’t meet their commitments to themselves or other people. They break their word, they forget their obligations, and they ignore their promises. They can’t be counted on and can’t count on themselves. They don’t show up for what they contracted to, whether it’s getting to class, to a job, to an appointment. They don’t realize that every time they default on any kind of social contract, they are letting themselves down. They can’t depend upon themselves to do what they said they would. Showing up is an act of independence.

Next is keeping up. The opposite of keeping up is falling behind. People who fall behind in completing what is best undertaken now create pressure to catch up. Procrastination is the name of this game, and it is an expensive one to play because the cost is in accumulated stress. Performing under last minute pressure and under threat of deadlines becomes an anxious way to function. It’s a trap. Create present freedom by deferring demands until later burdens the future with more to do, and with less time to get everything done. They can’t depend upon themselves to meet demands in a timely way. Keeping up is an act of independence.

Last is owning up. The opposite of owning up is denying responsibility. People who deny responsibility try to get out of encountering unhappy consequences of decisions that they made. Using excuses or blame or asking to be rescued, they avoid the opportunity for the most important kind of education in life—learning to recover from the errors of one’s ways. Thus in securing an escape from paying the costs for their mistakes or misdeeds they are more likely to fall prey to similar decisions in the future. They have delayed their growing up because growing up requires a gathering of responsibility, not evading it. They can’t depend upon themselves to be accountable. Owning up is an act of independence.

All these “Ups” are a matter of choice. A recent high school graduate can decide to shut up, back down, give up, fall behind, and deny responsibility, but when it comes to gaining independence, these choices will not get them very far.

If they truly want to successfully operate more on their own, then they have to pay the growing price. Speak up and declare yourself, and people may criticize what you have to say. Stand up for what you believe, and people may reject you for the position you take. Show up for what you committed to, and you must make the effort to do so. Keep up with the demands in your life, and forsake doing something more pleasurable at that moment instead. Own up to your decisions, and face the consequences of poor choices when they occur.

There’s no free pass to independence. That’s just how it is.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Parental Responsibility in Adolescent Problems