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Wright Words: What I wish I'd known when I turned 16

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

My oldest child, Oakli Shane, will celebrate her 16th birthday in a few days. How can this be? She was in Pull-Ups just yesterday. Can I demand a recount of the years?

If you know me, you know that Oakli will not receive a car, pony, bouncy-house, expensive jewelry or an arranged marriage. She’ll get a nice party with a handful of friends, good food, a karaoke machine and a super-groovy DJ wearing a wild wig and making gratuitous '80s references. Oh, and he’ll look suspiciously like her pops.

She’ll also receive a letter from me sharing what I wish I’d known when I celebrated my own 16th birthday. It won’t change her life and it certainly won’t solve any of life’s great mysteries. All I can hope is that it will penetrate the noisy bubble of video games, siblings, cellphones and iPods that sometimes separate parents from their children.

I will tell her that when I was 16, I wish I’d known I wasn’t always the smartest person in the room. As a teenager, I could have stumbled into a Mensa meeting with Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Sir Isaac Newton and still thought I was the brightest bulb of the bunch. Not true then; not true now. I’m not even the smartest one in the room when I’m alone with Pilgrim, the family pooch.

On my 16th birthday, I wish I’d better understood that cars are not toys. They’re weapons capable of changing lives in an instant through carelessness and arrogance. It’s no small miracle that my passengers and I survived my early driving antics.

Speaking of cars, Oakli should also know it’s a terrible idea to mope about not getting a convertible by painting the top of a Datsun 210 with the same white interior paint that your mother used on her bathroom walls. Not that anyone would ever do that.

What else should I include in my letter?

When I was her age, I wish I’d known that no one really cared what kind of shoes I wore or that I sported a Members Only knock-off jacket that my mother bought at Kmart. Most teenagers are more concerned with their own identities than with the label on your clothes.

When I turned 16, it meant the painfully long wait to date was finally over. But in my hindsight dad wisdom, I sure regret not understanding the epic tragedy about members of the opposite sex. Despite the medical advances of the last 25 years, no matter how many billions are spent in high-tech labs on research and development, teen cooties are a serious epidemic.

Moreover, the brain of an average teenage boy isn’t fully developed until he’s 40ish.

On her sweet 16, I hope Oakli knows that it’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes and to taste temporary failure. It’s all right to not make the team, to not get the part or to lose the election for class president. Those aren’t losses; they’re lessons. Plus, none of those things affect whether God loves you.

Truthfully, at 16, I sometimes wondered if heaven even knew I existed. I hope Oakli knows that her creator knows much, much more than that. He knows her by name, and he knows why all those lessons matter.

Finally, my letter to Oakli will reveal in the plainest of terms how much I love her, just as my own parents loved me. My father was gone just months after I celebrated my 16th birthday. And though he demonstrated his love in words and deed, I don’t think I was paying attention.

I hope she is.

I want my daughter to know that when I’m impatient, I love her. When I’m working late at my office on an immovable deadline, I love her. When she makes mistakes and hurts her mother’s feelings, I love her.

She knows how much I love to write. But does she know I love her more?

She knows how much I love my golf, tennis, church and political buddies. But does she know I love her more?

She knows how much I love tacos, desserts, book signings, speaking engagements and ESPN. But does she know I love her more?

Honestly, as I consider her big day, I’m humbled to know she’s smarter, more dedicated, more faithful and more grounded than I was at her age.

But even if she weren't? Well, I'd love her anyway.

And that's something every 16-year-old should know.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or www.jasonfwright.com

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