It’s no longer going to help get them into college. They won’t step up to a better chair or make varsity. The conveyor belt of achievement has reached its end.
Now all that remains are the kinds of questions everyone comes to eventually: Do you still do your thing — whatever your thing is — when no one is watching? What do you do when it doesn’t matter any more?
“I’ve recently had to come to the realization that I won’t have a next year to prepare for as a member of this team,” said Sawyer Michaelson, a tennis player and senior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. “This is the first time I haven’t had a future to look forward to. I hope to play tennis in college, but things aren’t set in stone like they were for me in high school.” This, he said, is “unnerving.”
“This is a real moment for a lot of kids,” said Christine VanDeVelde, an author of “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.” “For some, who’ve had adults guide them all their lives, they don’t know what they want or what they like or what motivates them. For others, who’ve been competent or successful at a lot of things, it can be hard to know which one sustains them.”
In many ways, that challenge is amped up by the rigorous approach teenagers are encouraged to take to what used to be seen as hobbies, done outside of school and on a student’s own time. (Thus the term “extracurriculars.”) As the sports and activities kids once did “just for fun” sometimes led to prestigious academic opportunities, the grown-ups caught on and took over, and everything from baseball to math modeling was commercialized and turned into a means to an end.
The message was clear: These activities were important. What they weren’t was optional, at least beyond the initial decision to sign up. The season was mapped out, the schedule on the fridge.
It’s that structure that makes this shift more than just a standard rite of passage for new graduates. Teachers, coaches and parents strive to give students the best experiences in competing, performing or creating, but the more professionalized the process becomes, the more difficult it can be to return to an amateur approach. When your artwork has been given the gallery treatment and your entry into the final game was marked by fireworks and a sound system worthy of the Super Bowl, painting for yourself or playing a pickup game in the park might feel pointless.
Add in the college admission process, and even the most passionate teenagers say they feel as if things have reached an end rather than a turning point.
“There is definitely this sense that you are putting work into activities so you can get some sort of payback — admission to a top college — and afterward, your work is done,” said Ella Biehn, a senior and a songwriter and guitarist at DeKalb School of the Arts near Atlanta. She plans to keep performing in college, majoring in vocal music, and yet, “In a lot of cases I feel like a spent battery.”
Ironically, in placing so much value on activities that our children came to out of love or interest, we grown-ups replaced the intrinsic motivations we often claim to value with extrinsic ones. When you’ve been taught that every action has a purpose, it’s harder to find meaning in just doing something you enjoy, and much more difficult to persuade yourself to do it.
And so, with an anticlimactic awards ceremony and a round of applause and tears, we welcome our former student athletes and artists into the real world, where art and sport beckon alluringly in other people’s Instagram feeds, but leisure itself — the act of engaging in something merely because we enjoy it — is not much valued. The opportunities are there, but the will to take advantage of them, to make choices for reasons other than profit or productivity, has to be yours.
Maybe this is the most important lesson our new graduates can learn. “This is part of the human experience,” said Susan Avery, a college counselor at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan. “These kids have spent 17 years listening to adults. Now they have to learn to listen to themselves.”
Ms. Avery’s daughter, a dedicated pre-med student who never pursued the arts in high school, signed up for theater club for fun at a freshman fair in college and will soon be graduating as a theater major. “When she first mentioned it, I was like, ‘Do it!’” Ms. Avery said. “‘I like it, I want to try it’ — that’s a good reason.”
The secret of adulthood, the one those high school seniors don’t know but soon will, is that there are some questions we never really resolve. Do you still do your thing — whatever your thing is — when no one is watching? Both the magic of that question and its existential angst lie in the freedom it presents. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t.
It really only matters — really only has to matter — to you.
KJ Dell’Antonia is the author of “How to Be a Happier Parent” and the forthcoming novel “The Chicken Sisters.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.