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The Myth of Mandatory

I know, mandatory is a funny word to dislike so strongly.

I see way too many emails from adults to young people with the word mandatory.  I should actually start by describing the 3 levels of mandatory I am talking about:

Level 1 – mandatory

Level 2- MANDATORY

Level 3 – MANDATORY

You may be familiar with this strategy of using different combinations of capitalization, italics, bold, and sometimes underline to convey the degree of mandatory-ness.

So, I do get it.  The writer of the email wants to ensure that the young person completes the thing or attends the thing that is the subject of the message.  But mandatory is about absolutes, and we should use them sparingly.

And do we really mean mandatory?  If you have COVID is the deadline still mandatory?  If your parent is sick in the hospital is it still mandatory?  If it is your grandmother’s 100th birthday, is it mandatory?  Because if we use mandatory, it is mandatory, isn’t it?

You see I have spent many years in the adult world, and there are a lot of things in my life which are important and I should prioritize, but very few things in my life that are really mandatory.

For many,  young people should be allowed to make choices, as long as they choose what we want them to choose.

Now if you are coaching a team, or rehearsing a play or preparing for an exam, you want the young people to attend your thing.  You want them to prioritize your thing over other things.

But, as I often see, everything is mandatory, how is that fair?  We say we want young people to do lots of activities, and have lots of experiences but we penalize them when they don’t always prioritize what we want them to prioritize.

Now, as kids get older and can specialize more, there will absolutely be consequences if something is not a priority.  If you are the lead in the musical but only prioritize half the rehearsals you will probably be replaced.  And if you only prioritize half the study sessions for the AP Exam, you should not be surprised if you score a 2.

I coach in a high level club basketball program where teenagers choose to participate and much of their fees are covered by sponsors.  As student get older they need to prioritize this if they want to participate.  There are lots of options for them to participate with basketball so asking them to prioritize is fair.

I think we can get to a similar place without the M word.  We should have real conversations with young people about priorities.  We should talk about trade-offs, and be open to allowing young people to not always prioritize our thing.

So if you see yourself using mandatory in your email to young people – stop it.  Find another way to convey importance but allow young people choice, agency and ownership.

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