A Letter to My Son (On Turning 14)


Dear Jason,

I can’t help but feel nostalgic as this is the first time that I’ll not be celebrating your birthday with you. Isn’t it peculiar how we ended up celebrating your last three birthdays in different countries? Hong Kong in 2012, USA in 2013 and Nepal in 2014. I did wonder last year how anticlimactic your 14th birthday is going to be after the previous years’ trifecta. As always, life has its own plan and it is oddly apt that you will spend your first birthday as a teenager without me.

You are not likely to remember, but when you were seven years old, you wanted to know why you should do what I asked you to. That, in itself, was not a new question—you have always been extraordinarily inquisitive, independent and strong-willed, and we have had similar conversations from when you were a toddler.

I couldn’t remember the exact circumstance, or the exact words you used, but there was a new twist: you wanted me to promise that your life would turn out okay if you do everything I say.

On the surface, it seemed like a preposterous demand. And yet, I understood the circuitous argument you were trying to made: Why should you do what I asked you to, if I couldn’t guarantee that doing what I asked, would lead to those outcomes that I said it would?

It wasn’t the easiest topic to discuss with a seven year old. But as with most of your other queries, if they were genuine (as distinct from smart-alecky ones), I always try to answer as honestly as I can. I wasn’t sure though how much you understood then. So I would try to answer it again, but more substantively this time:

Mum and Dad love you very much and we want the best for you. As your parents, besides providing food and shelter, we also see it as our duty to model, educate, and impart those values, qualities, and life skills, which we believe will best prepare you for adulthood. We don’t always have all the answers and we certainly are not always right. However, because we have lived more years than you, we have experienced more things, and learnt more about what work and what doesn’t work. We will try our best to pass these learnings onto you, so that you can avoid making the same mistakes that we did.

When we reflect on our journeys, we are acutely aware that we really only have a small window of time to instil in you all the things that we think you would need when you grow up. In fact, most of our work (your preparation if you like) would need to be completed by the time you reach adolescence.

Your adolescence is the time when you put on trainer wheels and start to explore the world on your own terms. It is also a strange time because you want the freedom of adulthood, but you have not yet learnt to accept the responsibilities that come with it. You will form your own views, choose your own friends, and make your own decisions. You will mostly de-value our opinions, and turn instead to your friends, teachers, and other sources—including YouTube and Google—for advice.

Just like we did when we were your age, you will be testing boundaries. We are going to have differences in opinion on many things—ranging from your food, friends and fads; to your cleanliness, contribution and communication. You will most likely experience some challenging times ahead. At its worst, you will feel like your whole world is crashing down and everyone seems to be conspiring against you.

No matter how hopeless or frustrating everything seems, remember that we will find a way to work through it. Life will turn out to be okay at the end of your teenage years.

Mum and Dad cannot guarantee how your life would turn out. After all, we are only the supporting cast in your movie, the movie that is your life. We may have featured prominently in the opening scenes, but don’t let us mislead you—you are the director of your own movie. As tempting as it is for us to re-write the script, to keep you out of harm’s way, and to shield you from life’s trials and disappointments, we know that that would be a disservice to you. The best (and also scariest) part of life is you get to create your own movie.

But don’t worry too much. We are confident that you are well-prepared for the road ahead. Make the most of this phase of your life. Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). Laugh often. Learn new things. Cry when you need to. Do lots of fun and awesome stuff.

Consider taking on board some or all of the 14 tips below. If you do, you shouldn’t stray too far and your life should turn out to be more than just okay (but no guarantees of course!).

1. Making choices. A big part of growing up is learning to make your own choices. Learn to think through the consequences before making a decision.

2. Be accountable. Every choice that you make will have consequences. Learn to be accountable and accept the consequences of your choices.

3. Choose your own path. You can never please everyone 100% of the time, but you do need to live with yourself 100% of the time. Don’t do things just to please other people. Learn to choose your own path. Whatever you choose, make sure they are things that you can be proud of when you look at yourself in the mirror.

4. Follow your interests. Don’t get too stressed about what subjects to choose and which career path to take. There is plenty of time to figure that out later in life. Follow your interests and choose activities that interest you.

5. Making mistakes. You are going to make some mistakes along the way. We all do. It’s okay. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

6. Don’t hold grudges. It’s petty to hold a grudge. You are bigger than that. Learn to let go of grievances.

7. Mind your manners. No one likes being around rude people. Be polite at all times and mind your manners.

8. Respect your elders. You may not agree with everything that your elders have to say, but they do have your best interests at heart. You don’t need to have the last word all the time. Try to listen—or at least pretend to listen—to what they have to say (and then make your own decision anyway).

9. Control your temper. Notice when you are getting angry. Don’t say things or do things in anger—you can’t undo them. Walk away. Take deep breathes. Drink ice-water. Kick a punching bag. Scream. Find out and do whatever works for you. Learn to control your temper. Don’t let it control you.

10. Confront your fears. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in spite of fear. Your fears will only get bigger if you avoid them. Learn to confront your fears.

11. Honesty is the best policy. The truth always comes out in the end. Best to stick with the truth, and nothing but the truth.

12. Saving money. Differentiate between your needs and wants. Spend less. Time and the magic of compounding is on your side. Use your savings to do awesome stuff.

13. Don’t take stupid risks. Remember how you made us promise to act responsibly and not take unnecessary risks because you don’t want us to die young (and have no one to take care of you). It’s your turn now to make the same promise. Take good care of yourself. You only have one body. Don’t take stupid risks.

14. Trust yourself. For times when you truly cannot decide (even after meticulously weighing up the pros and cons), learn to trust your instinct. Go with what your heart tells you to do. If you still don’t know what to do, toss a coin.

Ultimately, the life that you choose to create and the path that you take is entirely up to you. We may not always agree with your choices, but we would always respect your right to choose.

We hope that you will be responsible, optimistic, open-minded, courageous and resilient. Above all, we hope that you will be happy.

We love you with all our hearts and will always be here for you.

Happy 14th Birthday.