When I was a student, I remember hearing the phrase “When you get into the real world … ” often. Usually it was followed by some ominous foreboding that the stress or challenge I was facing at the time would pale in comparison to the insurmountable obstacles waiting for me in “the real world.”
“What, exactly, is the real world,” I began to wonder. My younger self envisioned offices with papers flying and impossible math word problems. I imagined a grouchy boss bursting into a cubicle and demanding that I tell him, immediately, what time a train would arrive at a station if it left at 3:52, traveling at 63 mph…. For some reason, “the real world” became some intangible promise waiting for me, just out of reach and out of sight on the horizon. And it was annoying.
It wasn’t until high school that I more realistically questioned the concept of “the real world.” Would I experience the world differently after graduation? Would I have some moment of realization or disillusionment about what I assumed the world was? Certainly I was to have more complex experiences and continue growing, but that would neither start nor end the day after graduation. Those things were happening constantly in my youth. I was learning every day.
As a teacher and parent, I avoid the phrase entirely. For starters, it does nothing to solidify whatever message I’m trying to convey. The only purpose it seems to have is condescension. If I want to explain something about adulthood or maturity, I can certainly be more specific and less demeaning. If my intention is to argue that the future will provide challenges different from those a child is facing currently, then I can say that. Or I can not. Because if my point is that the child is unprepared, then I’d do better to focus my attention and energy on preparing the child rather than scare the daylights out of him. Or worse: celebrate myself for having survived those challenges.
It’s not unlike the idea that you can’t wait to see who a child becomes. Although this concept may be well-intended and meant to convey that he’s likely to become successful, it adds a pressure to achieve some impressive but undefined future greatness. It also diminishes the success in the present. He isn’t likely to become great. He is great. Life does not happen in the unreachable future. Life is happening here and now. My children’s current awesomeness is not a sign of future greatness; it is greatness. Now.
Rather than waiting to see what my kids “become,” celebrate who they are. After all, the becoming never stops anyway (at least I hope it doesn’t! I’m 34, and I feel like I’m still becoming!). I don’t want to set my kids up to constantly chase happiness or success without realizing that they can attain those things right here right now. Their greatness isn’t part of some distant destiny. They’re great now.
I also don’t want them to wrap their identities in the educational paths or careers they choose. Life isn’t about where they end up going or what they end up doing later. It’s not even about who they’ll be. Despite their ages and experiences, it’s about who they are.
I know those statements are well-intended. What they probably represent is that there is an eagerness to be along for the ride as that child continues to grow and develop. Still, “the real world” isn’t later. It’s here and now.