17 Things I Want My Son To Know On His 17th Birthday

04/14/2015 07:47 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

People always say that middle kids get lost in the shuffle. That's why I've tried extra hard, with my own middle kid, to make sure his birth order was never a detriment. Towards that end, we've gone on trips, just he and I, to places as far-flung as Kenya. Both of us share a passion for travel, the more exotic the better.

That middle kid, Ben, isn't really a kid anymore. He'll turn 17 this week. His older brother, off at college, is 20. His pesky "little" sister is a sassy teenager herself, at 14.

These days, Ben is taller than I am. He also works harder to get what he wants than anyone I know. He's generous to a fault. He prefers his dad's cooking to mine -- as does just about everyone -- and likes his sister a lot more than he's willing to admit.

Yes, Ben, you're one smart teenager. But as you enter your 17th year, here are 17 things I want you to know.

1. Life can turn on a dime.
My grandparents, your great-grandparents, died instantly in a car accident so I speak from experience. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Never take anything for granted. Be grateful and tell your loved ones you love them -- every chance you get.

2. Read The Economist every week.
Make knowing what's going on in the world a priority.

3. Don't hold a grudge.
There have been times when I've been slow to forgive, and it's nearly destroyed some pretty important relationships. You'll learn over time that most things that may seem absolutely outrageous in the moment are quickly forgotten. Everyone makes mistakes. You make mistakes too. The worst thing you can be is judgmental.

4. It's not uncool to have mom and dad in your corner.
When I was waiting for my flight to London for my junior year abroad, surrounded by 39 other students I didn't know, I was very nervous but trying not to show it. My mother said to me quietly, "Honey, I think you are the prettiest girl here." I remember rolling my eyes and saying, "Yeah, right mom" because clearly there were much prettier girls waiting at the gate. But I knew what she was trying to do. What I wouldn't give right now to hear my mom say those words to me again.

5. There's nothing wrong with a Cuban cigar every once in awhile.
Your dad will attest to it.

6. Always stay close with your brother and sister. Sibling relationships are more important than you can imagine.
One day, they will be the only people who still remember your childhood.

7. Keep a journal.
You might think you'll remember your favorite teachers, or what it was like to hike the Angels Landing Trail at Zion National Park in 2014, trekking along that narrow sandstone ridge even after the rest of us bailed on you, but you might not. Write things down. Take photos. Look back.

8. If someone tells you a secret, and asks you not to tell anyone, don't.
If you tell a friend, it will get back to them. It really will.

9. Don't build your worth on objects, but on experiences.
You can look around our house and tell that we've always valued travel a lot more than nice furniture. And I'm so glad we did.

10. It is usually not about you.
As you grow older, don't worry so much about looking a certain way. Most of the time, no one is paying attention. Really. People like to think everyone is focused on them but, in actuality, people are usually focused mostly on themselves. And if someone does something to you that's hurtful, it's almost certainly related to something going on in their life that has nothing to do with you.

11. If you need to go far, far away to pursue your dreams, then do it.
My mother didn't bat an eye when, shortly after college, I told her I wanted to take my savings of $2,000 and move to Central America to try and become a foreign correspondent. Even though I'm sure she wasn't exactly leaping with joy over my decision, I never knew it. The only message she ever conveyed to me was that she wanted me to be happy. And that's what I want for you.

12. Be kind to those you meet on the way up because you may meet them again on the way down.
This is an old saying and you may find it silly. But it's definitely true. Down the road, your behavior towards others will dictate how they behave towards you.

13. Practice the skills we've tried to teach you.
Before you go off to college, you must become more adept at cooking, cleaning and taking care of your finances. I know it's a pain, but one day you'll thank me.

14. Modesty is very attractive.
A lot of moms and dads these days walk around telling their offspring how spectacular they are, and that they can do everything perfectly. As a result, many kids exude this sort of "I'm better than everyone else" self-confidence. And no doubt it's nice to be self-confident. But being humble will draw others to you, and make you stand out, much more than pounding on your chest ever will.

15. Show up for important events.
Sometimes the last thing you want to do is spend the weekend at an older relative's 80th birthday celebration, or even a Sunday afternoon at your little sister's band concert, but it's important you do. I've learned the hard way that failing to show up at a major event is one of the most common reasons relationships break down. Be there for others and they'll be there for you.

16. Attitude is a small thing that makes a very big difference.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. Hanging around people who complain all the time brings you down. Being positive and thinking good thoughts will help make good things happen. Attitudes are contagious. I really believe that.

17. Wherever you end up in life, you will always have a home so long as your dad and I are alive.
It doesn't matter what you've done, we'll always love you like crazy.

So happy 17th birthday, you quiet, smart, handsome "Walking Dead" fanatic. I couldn't be more proud.


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