To my oldest son:
You turn 12 years old in 4 days. This is a milestone year for you. You will soon be done with elementary school and on to junior high school. You will take on new and important responsibilities at church as well as at home. And I’m feeling very sentimental.
You made me a mother. I hyperventilated when I found out I was pregnant. When I found out you were a boy, I started dreaming of what a son would be like, and you are nothing like it! You are so much more. You have always been so close to perfection that I often thought heaven would take you away from me too soon. But here you are. You have taught me more in 12 years than I think I will ever be able to teach you, but here are some important lessons I want you to know.
1. Find your passion. You made an alphabetical list of over 800 dinosaurs when you were 5. Meanwhile, your peers were out playing football or climbing trees. Your dry sense of humor is lost on many kids your age (and even adults). Embrace the things you love because there is nobody else in the world like you. Keep doing what you love to do. Your uniqueness is a strength.
2. Be kind. It’s not manly to be cruel, and it’s not weak to be gentle. Smile at everyone you see, it goes a long way. Be kind with your words. Imagine if everyone was kind to each other – the world would be a much better place.
3. Being popular is not the same as having friends. At your age, popularity and friends are everything. I get it. I’ve been there too. Popularity is fleeting, though. True friends love you for who you are and will stand by you no matter what. They may be hard to find, but I promise they’re out there (you might already have some).
4. Be a gentleman. Manners are so important. Good manners will set you apart in all aspects of your life – school, career, relationships, etc. Some girls might make you think they are too good for your gentle kindness, but a strong woman won’t put up with anything less.
5. You can’t make another person happy. There will be numerous times in your life where you want to make someone else happy. Not only is this impossible, but it’s not your job. The only happiness you can control is your own. Instead, focus on how you treat others, especially when they are in need of some happiness.
6. Always be respectful. The way you treat others says a lot about yourself. Your greatest hero deserves the same respect as the homeless person on the corner. Your best friend and the school bully are equally deserving of your kindness. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to agree with someone to respect them.
7. Take responsibility for your actions. It’s hard to admit when you’ve made a mistake, but guess what? It’s human nature. It’s the only way we can learn and grow. Being responsible for your actions makes you strong, brave, and better than you were before.
8. Strength lies within. True strength isn’t determined by how big your muscles are. And my son, you are one of the strongest kids I know. You have unwavering faith, a desire to learn, and such a good heart. And that is what real strength is made of.
9. Express your feelings. I have always loved your sweet sensitivity, but as you enter your teenage years, that trait is often portrayed as a weakness. Don’t bottle up your feelings or push them away, though! Use your words, even if it’s just to yourself. Our feelings and emotions are what makes us who we are.
10. Have the courage to stand. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The silence of our friends hurts far more than the words of our enemies.” If you see something or someone in the wrong, say something. Have confidence. Know that you are smart, talented, and capable. You can do anything if you believe in yourself.
11. It’s okay to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect, even you! There will be times in your life where you might not know the answer to a question. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid (sorry, I know that word isn’t allowed in our house, but I guess I made a mistake). How else can we learn and grow?
12. I love you no matter what. Messing up is part of life. We need to keep trying and keep loving. And when you do mess up, no matter how much, I will be there for you. There may be a lot of discipline, sorrow, or fear. I may not love your mistakes, but I will always love you.
This story originally appeared on Becky Squire