Lessons for My Sister On Her Sixteenth Birthday


My little sister just turned sixteen, and in racking my brain for what to get her, I came up empty handed. She very innocently asked for charcoal pencils, which is all well and good—but I was more concerned with what I could give her that really means something, something that will last. Superficial gifts can be nice, of course, but after so many years of giving and taking they begin to feel tired and even a little silly. I’ve always been far more moved by a thoughtful note than any of the nice, tangible objects I’ve received. And, ahem, not to brag, but I’m a little famous (with about five people) for my thank you notes and birthday cards as well. Exhibit A? One family framed the text of my high school graduation thank you note, despite the fact that we weren’t even that close.

I love writing, so I guess it’s no surprise that when given any opportunity to put my feelings into words, I’m going to try to make the most of it. I won’t shame you for not understanding that at all, or for finding notes like these laborious or corny, BUT I will say that life is too short not to try to make the “boring” things more fun or meaningful. Especially when those things directly relate to the people you love most, and have the potential to really affect them in some way.

That said, I decided that the best thing I have in my arsenal for Annie right now are the few life lessons I’ve learned since being sixteen. So much has happened between that age and where I am now (twenty-three), it feels as if there were decades squeezed into that relatively short space of time. Though I have a lot more life to live, I think most people would agree that the few years after turning sixteen are some of the toughest: they’re awkward, they’re messy, they’re uncertain. They’re when a person really starts to figure out who they are, what they want and what they definitely don’t.

SO, If I can tell Annie anything that might make this period of her life slightly less bumpy, it’s the following…

  1. Fighting with your friends is almost never worth it. People are imperfect and relationships are about compromise. True friendship is founded on loving each other’s strengths and deciding to put up with each other’s weaknesses. If something is really, really upsetting you, it’s healthy to confront it, but do it in a way that is empathetic, not harsh or fueled by anger. The dramatic arguments rarely result in anything good, and you will be so much happier if you can learn to just accept your friends for who they are rather than constantly trying to change them. If you find yourself with friends who thrive on that drama, than reevaluate your friends.
  2. Don’t be so judgmental. You’re going to meet a lot of annoying people, a lot of socially retarded people, and a lot of people you consider really uncool. Many of your friends and acquaintances will think it’s okay or even funny to show their disdain for these people—but you can and should be above that. We’re all fighting the good fight—don’t make it any harder for anyone else than it already is by being cruel.
  3. Grudges are the biggest waste of your time and emotional energy. Try your best not to hold onto the bad feelings you have towards someone, or that have resulted from an argument. This goes for family, friends, and near-strangers. The quicker you can move on, the better—in pretty much every situation. If someone deeply hurts you and you see them differently as a result, that’s okay, but if you can find it in your power to at least forgive them, you should. Because if you don’t, you’ll just be carrying around ugly, unnecessary weight.
  4. Don’t put up with men who treat you like a toy or play you like a game. I know for a fact that you will, because all of us do and it’s a necessary learning curve, but the sooner you can realize how not worth it is, the better. When you first start dating, you will probably settle for assholes a lot, just please know that that’s not how it should be or has to be—that there are much better guys out there for you. I’m still learning this, but it becomes clearer with every year that passes.
  5. Don’t rely on other people to nurture your self-esteem. At the end of the day, how you’re feeling will have a lot more to do with how you feel about yourself than how others feel about you. It’s lovely to have friends or a romantic partner make you feel good about yourself, but they can’t and shouldn’t be the sole sources of your confidence. Learn to appreciate yourself on your own terms, separate from whatever others appreciate (or don’t appreciate) about you. You are the only consistent figure in your life, the only person you can 100% rely on—if you’re deeply unsure of yourself or what you have to offer, it will reverberate throughout much of your life in a negative way.
  6. But don’t strive to be happy and self-confident 24/7 either. Because that’s impossible, and as everyone will tell you, you need the blue periods to enjoy the rosier ones. Feeling like utter shit sometimes is totally okay, and actually healthy.
  7. Don’t be afraid to explore your options and push the boundaries of your life. Not happy where you are? Change things up, transfer schools, move, etc. Hate playing a certain sport even if you’re good at it? Well then don’t. Fill your time with things you are truly passionate about as much as possible. Just because your parents like something or want you to like something, doesn’t mean you have to like it, too. Question the status quo as much as you can—don’t just take things as they are, or as they’ve turned out to be from repetition over time. And never make assumptions about something without first trying it (unless it’s a hard drug, in which case, please just don’t).
  8. Don’t be an idiot with your body. This might sound hypocritical coming from me but I’m saying it anyways. Try to develop healthy habits now so that you don’t end up struggling to implement them later. Indulge often, but try to keep things balanced for your health and sanity—before I got sick and was finally eating in a genuinely healthy way (not restricting, but not eating cake for breakfast, either) I was in the best shape of my life and felt more mental clarity than I ever had before. Find regular exercise that you enjoy—it is natural Prozac and I think those who live without it suffer mentally as a result. Also: never be lazy about sunscreen or birth control, you will regret it.
  9. Your mom is not the enemy. I already see you picking on your lovely mother more than you used to, and that’s natural for your age. God knows I treated my mom awfully when I was sixteen (sorry, Kath). But you are incredibly lucky, and all your mom’s “annoying” behaviors derive from her simply caring about you so freaking much. Try to remember that she really just wants the best for you in life, and that she wants you to learn from whatever mistakes she believes she has made in the past. Moral of the story: don’t be so quick to let your mom be your punching bag, no matter how tempting that can be for teenage girls.
  10. Read everything and read it as much as you can. Especially the newspaper. Stay up to date with what’s going on in the larger world—it’s important to remember how insignificant you are and how well off you are in the grand scheme of things. Read about things that you think bore you—you’ll be surprised to find out that a lot of it actually does not. And keep reading books, too. They will make you a lot smarter (and we could all always be smarter), a much better thinker and writer, and more empathetic.
  11. Come to me with anything and everything. I don’t care what it is, or how seemingly “shameful,” I will NEVER judge you.

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