How To Avoid Being A Clueless Dolt This Graduation Season

Photo of “The Graduate” courtesy of “The Graduate”. Funny how that works.


Three generations of alumni attended my nephew’s graduation at Michigan State University.   We linked arms as we sang the school song.  I looked around the auditorium and tears filled my eyes as I realized…most of the people there were clueless dolts.

Another graduation season is upon us.  Here’s how NOT to be a clueless dolt.

To Go Or Not To Go

You’ve been invited to a family member’s graduation ceremony.  Unless you live on a remote island and the supply boat is not due back for 3 months, you are expected to be there.  You can’t use your busy schedule as an excuse.  It’s May.  EVERYONE has graduations, weddings, first communions and other events booked 3 to a weekend.

The key point to consider is if one of your OWN children will soon be:

1)  graduating 
2) having their First Communion or Bar Mitzvah 

3)  getting married

If your kid is in 4th grade, you’re probably going through a dry spell as far as major life events.  You might be able to blow everyone off for a couple of years without serious repercussions.  The closer it is to your D-Day, however, the more compelling the argument for attendance.  The only way to ensure attendees bearing checks at your party, is to go to everyone else’s shindig.

A family member will rarely challenge you directly for missing their event, but it will never be forgotten.  Years from now, you and your sister will be rocking side by side on the porch at Happy Acres Nursing Home.  One random remark about her son Joey and the fact that you missed his graduation will be thrown in your face.  The years of pent up resentment will erupt like a puss-filled boil being lanced.

The Pomp Is A Victim Of Circumstances

Many seem to be unaware of the protocol at a graduation ceremony.

1)  Dress code:  A graduation is a fairly dressy event.  This is the time to shine with your good flip-flops and relatively clean Budweiser T-shirt.  If you get a rug burn on your butt-cheeks from the auditorium seats, your Daisy Dukes are probably too short for this occasion.

2)  Speakers: Unless you’ll be at the few schools who have booked the President or Kim Kardashian, the speaker will be a big donor.  He will relate, in excruciating detail, how he started with nothing but a diploma and wound up with a chain of 20 car-washes.  Resign yourself to 1-1/2 hours of mind-numbing boredom.   Always introduce yourself to your neighbor before snoozing on his shoulder.  Under NO circumstances is it acceptable to bring a pillow to the ceremony.

3) Cheering:  You are proud of your young relative, and rightly so.  When he walks across the stage and accepts his diploma, make sure you have stopped jumping up and down, whistling, cheering and blowing air-horns by the time 2, or at most 3 more graduates have followed him across the stage.  I am a stickler on this point.  After all, we want to be considerate.

4) I’ve got mine:   Thank goodness your last name is “Aarons” and not “Zombrowski.”  Your kid is done and you can leave.  As you and your 24 relatives stand to gather up belongings and screaming young children, as you step over the other attendees to get to the aisle, make sure you duck down a couple of inches.  This conveys to the people behind you, who just missed seeing THEIR graduate get her diploma because of your mass exodus, that you feel bad for them.

Party Hearty

A graduation party is as American as apple pie.  It’s a coming together of young and old, neighbors, friends and relatives, all there to celebrate a momentous occasion in the young person’s life.  (Like weddings used to be before bridezillas decided they would prefer destination weddings that make it impossible for guests who are old, poor or have young children to attend.)

If the party is at someone’s house, prepare to dine at folding tables set up in their garage.  On the plus side, you’re assured of a smorgasbord of yummy, homemade desserts.  On the down side, you may end up with questionable potato salad,  resulting in 100 guests urgently queuing up to use 1-1/2 bathrooms.

If the party is at a restaurant, make sure you find out ahead of time who is paying for the meal.   I cannot stress this enough.  A discreet question could have saved everyone embarrassment at a family graduation I attended.    It wasn’t until the waitress brought the bill that I discovered my sister and her husband were picking up the tab.  Imagine how I felt when I found out I could have ordered surf & turf instead of splitting a burger with another thrifty relative?

The Gift

This is a minefield.  The problem is figuring out the right dollar amount.  Should you give more for high school and less for college, or vice-versa?

The question is complicated if you have already had some graduations in the family.  Do you remember what you gave somebody 5 years ago?  I don’t.  But I guarantee your sister-in-law knows to the penny.  If one kid gets more than the other, there will be holy hell to pay.

You don’t want to get the reputation as a cheapskate.   But you also don’t want to give your niece twice what your miserly brother will give your kid.

For friends, you just have to wing it.  For family, I suggest a conference.  Hammer out the terms beforehand – establish a pay scale so there are no surprises.  Just make sure you get buy-in from all the siblings.

A Word About 8th Grade Graduation

While 8th grade graduation is certainly a milestone, it’s not really much of an accomplishment.  Parents who don’t force their children to at least finish grade school face charges of negligence in most jurisdictions.  A new outfit, a little cake, and a few pictures are nice.  If you go for a limo and an all-night party at a fancy hotel you look like a self-important twit who is spoiling his poor child rotten in an attempt to impress the other parents.

Armed with my practical advice, you should have no problem sailing through this graduation season.  And if you do find yourself dashed on the rocks of graduation etiquette, just send up a flare and I will arrive with the life raft of my valuable opinion.  Just keep bailing.

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About pegoleg

R-A-M-B-L-I-N-G-S, Ram...Blin!
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66 Responses to How To Avoid Being A Clueless Dolt This Graduation Season

  1. societycommentator says:

    Once again, getting to the heart of the situation with humor & wit! Thanks

  2. The dress code is a must. Imagine my chagrin at the graduation of one of my girls, when I wore my best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and high heels, only to discover everyone around me arrived wearing grungy jeans, Tshirts, and sneakers or flip-flops. *They* had it right, however – because of the size of the graduating class, the ceremony was held in the school’s sports arena, and it wasn’t much fun climbing up and down bleachers in high heels and dressy clothes, never mind trying to sit ladylike on a wooden bench.

    • pegoleg says:

      You raise a very good point. Maybe we could dial down to our second-best-Saturday-go-to-graduation outfits including slacks and medium heels, just so we don’t wipe out on the bleachers.

  3. Doobster418 says:

    Very witty posts. Fortunately for me, I have reached the age where everyone I know has either already graduated from whatever institute of higher (or lower) learning they have or ever will attend, and everyone I know is already married and/or divorced (I never attend second weddings for anyone whose first wedding I attended). I also never attend new baby Christenings or brisses. I have to admit, though, at my age, funerals are beginning to become an issue. I will simply have to disavow all friendships and disown all relatives before attendance at even one more of those depressing events is required.

  4. Everyone I know is well on the way to a funeral also. Except for my grandkids, the first of whom will be graduating high school in 2 years. By then I can claim I’m too old to travel.

  5. Congrats to your nephew!

    Is it okay if I wear appropriate yet sensible shoes AND blare an air horn while I walk across the stage to get my diploma? After all, I am a bit giddy it’s finally over and I want the audience to know just how excited I am.

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    Although there aren’t many, this is one benefit of living far away from all your family members–no graduations to attend. That doesn’t stop the announcement cards from coming, though nor the endless checks that must be sent out as a result… ;)

    • pegoleg says:

      As a parent who just sent a mitt-full of college graduation announcements to my family on behalf of my youngest sproutlette, may I just say….bless you.

  7. madtante says:

    Doesn’t apply to my life at all!

    We had commencement exercises (what they were called in my day) for both my high school and my uni but it’s nothing NEAR they elaborate I don’t even know what to call it described here!

    It’s probably your parents and grandparents or godparents (and siblings).

    Since I only had 1 grandparent, she attended the one at uni but I didn’t even bother my mammy with high school! Ugh, outdoors, it’s VERY hot and humid this time of year (mine was in June) and…it’s HIGH SCHOOL! Jinkes.

    My godparents did attend hs but i was getting ready to move to their home to attend uni, so it was probably kind of a transition.

    I had no party for either, though I had a fancy resto dinner for both (hs was Brother and me and uni was less than 8).

    Most people where I live have a BBQ if anything.

    And Daisy Dukes are quite welcome — as well as your best Bud t-shirt! :)

    • pegoleg says:

      Our daughter graduates from college in a couple of weeks and it will be just the hubs, other daughter and 2 aunts in attendance. We’ll all dress up and go to a fancy restaurant for dinner.

      For high school, we had a cookout at the house for extended family and friends.

      Whatever floats your boat!

      • madtante says:

        Sounds nice! I talked to coworkers after commenting to see why their experiences were and one mentioned something g is forgotten all about! We were issued tickets–limited! So, we’re talking only parents or maybe 4 given at a ‘generous’ school.

        This spans low income to high but it might be a Missouri thing.

        I found it fascinating to see there’s such a vast difference out there.

  8. I am, I suppose, grateful for the fact not a single one of my nieces or nephews had the wherewithal to attend university and graduate. They returned later, went to night school, slogged their way through correspondence school (good for them), but every last one of them thought they were smarter than us, my own children included.

    Great advice though for the generation coming up.

  9. Elyse says:

    I am delighted that thanks to you, Peg, I will not be a dolt at any graduations. Please, though, in the near future, teach me how to not be a dolt during the rest of my life.

    And perhaps you can answer this question: do you have to give a graduation present to someone who has never ever ever acknowledged a gift?

    • pegoleg says:

      No. If they don’t send thanks, even a grandmother will stop sending gifts. And I say good for the person who takes that stand.

      I stood over my kids with a whip to get them done when they were younger. I THINK they send thank yous now, but I don’t know. It makes me cringe to think they don’t, but at 22 and 24, there’s not much I can do about it. Except issue a blanket absolution to all my family: if my kids have not been thanking you properly, for heaven’s sake, don’t send them another gift!

      • Elyse says:

        These are the kids of my favorite brother. They never ever do say thanks — unless they open it in front of me. Ticks me off royally!

        • pegoleg says:

          One year my Mom didn’t send presents for one brother’s kids and he actually called her on it. She said I never even get an acknowledgement from them. That brought him up short. Ever since then, I (and I assume my Mom and sibs) always get thank you notes from his kids.

  10. lisaspiral says:

    I don’t know where you’re at, but in our high schools tickets to the graduation ceremony were LIMITED. If you can’t (or don’t want to) go bow out early and let the poor kid with 12 siblings have the extra seats.

    • pegoleg says:

      That’s true. Same with our high school. But at some colleges they have the graduation in the stadium so there’s lots of seating.

  11. I cannot thank you enough for these words of wisdom, Peg! Although I scored big on graduation cards at the Dollar Store – OMG! I am going to go broke! My daughter is graduating from High School on June 6th but so are all her friends and boyfriend! AY!!!! How much do I give her good friends?? If I were crafty I would make something but the only thing I am good at making is cocktails!

    You are so right. I am still mad at my brother and sister in law for NOT coming to my son’s graduation party two years ago. They have no kids and even though every day is a vacation for them, they “needed” to get away that weekend so they could not attend. I will definitely be yelling at them at the Nursing Home! You gotta go to these events!!! Emotions run high and you WILL offend if you don’t go – unless you are dying, then maybe.

    • pegoleg says:

      I only gave the friends cards if we were invited to their graduation parties. The cocktails are a great idea, but perhaps you should limit those gifts to their parents.

      I’m with you on your brother and SIL. Some day they may wake up and realize that nothing is more important than family. Maybe when you’re smacking them with your cane at Shady Acres.

  12. That poor Zombrowski kid.

  13. Kids have so many graduations nowadays: kindergarten, 5th grade, 8th grade, high school, college…. Am I old?

    • pegoleg says:

      It seems ridiculous, but when you catch sight of your own precious darling in a tiny cap and gown for kindergarten, you will be snapping pictures and grinning like a fool.

  14. I especially like your dress code comments. Every year at our HS graduation I see some shabby dress that isn’t very chic. And as for how much to gift for these events? Always a challenge with so many family members. Hmmm… how much did I gift 4 years ago? Same for weddings I fear.

    • pegoleg says:

      Me, too! I’m getting ready to send cards to Michael and Maria and can’t remember what I’ve sent others in the past. Any ideas?

      • Oh dang! I was at the card store at lunchtime and forgot to get grad cards for those two. Dagnabit.
        I have a figure in mind for graduations – $100 for family members or whatever you can swing. It’s the thought, right?

  15. Al says:

    My gift to all the graduates in our family over the years ……just one word of advice….PLASTICS!

    • pegoleg says:

      For the last 30 years, 22-year-olds have been weakly smiling at middle-aged people saying that line. I have personally had to bite my tongue till it bled on more than one occasion to resist the impulse to utter it.

      Resist, Al. Resist.

  16. Graduation pictures are constantly arriving in my “in” box. Pre-school Graduation, Kindergarten Graduation, Grade 8 Graduation…it never ends. I seldom hear of anything higher than that. My theory is that they have about graduated themselves out of caring.

    • pegoleg says:

      Really? They had kindergarten graduation at our school just for moms and dads because they were so, darn cute in their little caps and gowns. And 8th grade just for immediate family and grandparents, although some of the ultra-competitive moms tried to turn that into a major event.

      In our family we try to have a party for high school graduation. College is usually too far away for anyone but the immediate family anyway.

  17. In my day … Yeah, I sound like an old fogey, but I can’t remember once my parents throwing a graduation party for any of us 5 kids. It was expected that we graduate because they were paying for it. Now, it seems like a ritual and a celebration on par with the birth of a royal baby. Lots of money that could be spent on a nice vacation for the long-suffering parents!

  18. I attended a few high school graduations when I was living in the states and I was quite fascinated by it all! We don’t really do that over here, we only do proper graduations from university. It made me chuckle when I noticed that every speech I heard by a student at a high school graduation seemed to begin “We have been given the key to unlock the door to the rest of our lives…” (or very similar) however when I mentioned this to a couple of Americans they seemed quite offended that I would dare to laugh or say anything slightly detrimental about these great ceromonies, so after that I realised I was simply required to nod and smile and look appropriately tearful at these events. Oh dear, I hope I’m not offending you now by mentioning my observations…

    • pegoleg says:

      Of course not, V. I would never let such petty things offend me. In fact, even if I DID think it incredibly rude that someone from across the pond would sneer at deeply-held beliefs and customs of which they know nothing, I wouldn’t dream of mentioning it. That would not be polite.

      I was thinking about you the other day when something I read reminded me of something you said, and now I can’t remember either thing. It’s pitiful when a perfectly good brain turns to Swiss cheese.

      • Well phew, as long as I haven’t offended you, that’s a relief :)

        Now try and remember what the thing was that you can’t remember!

        • pegoleg says:

          I just remembered. I didn’t mean to publish this post when I did. I was still tweaking and meant to Preview before I stuck it back in the drafts folder. As you so eloquently suggested to WordPress, it’s too damn easy to hit that button! They need to have an “Are you sure?” follow up question.

  19. lexiemom says:

    Luckily my oldest IS in 4th grade, so I’ll try to keep your advice in mind in about 8 years or so.

  20. Roxie says:

    What is the etiquette for tae kwon do graduation? My nephew just made 4th degree black belt.

  21. I remember how my mother wanted to leave after I’d crossed the stage during my college graduation. I went to (insert name of gigantic state school here) and there were 4,000 graduates! It took 4 hours and they did not allow family members to leave until all the names had been called. Talk about a captive audience!

    • pegoleg says:

      Yeah, that’s miserable – been there, done that. On the other hand, the non-stop exodus of people leaving as soon as their kid is done really ruins it for everyone else.

  22. No I’m not going to New Orleans for brother’s son’s graduation, but yes, I’m going to my brother’s niece’s graduation (daughter of his wife’s brother). It’s a logistical thing. Their graduations are 24 hrs. apart or less. I’m trying, I’m really trying…but just can’t do it all.
    I remember graduating in the MSU stadium. Couldn’t help thinking, “My parents drove up from TX for this?” Bless them, they paid for it.
    I went to a Texas Tech graduation dressed in a very nice BLUE suit. Boy did I stick out like a sore thumb among all that black and red. I wanted to just go to a nearby mall and buy some black.

    • pegoleg says:

      Was your graduation as noisy as ours? I couldn’t hear one word of it. God bless your parents for making the trip. Now that we’re in their shoes, however, we realize that parents just live for that kind of stuff, right?

  23. amelie88 says:

    I think I broke every rule on this list by not attending my sister’s college graduation. However I was living overseas in Spain and was teaching English so it wasn’t very practical. In fact, I think I would have been violating the terms of my contract by just taking off for a week (plus they don’t really do graduations in Spain like we do so nobody would have understood why it was so important). Also my sister went to school in the middle of absolute nowhere past the Adirondacks in that No Man’s Land known as the North Country of New York state. It’s not even Upstate NY at that point, it’s practically Canada so it wasn’t easy to get to. My sister’s best friend ended up going in my stead and it was fine. I really wished I could have been there (she did go to my college graduation after all) but she doesn’t hold it against me. I think I atoned for it by helping her move out this week (and taking a day off from work in the process).

    Speaking of speakers (har har), this year the speaker at my alma mater is Madeleine Albright! The year I graduated it was the editor of Newsweek which is sort of interesting but not really. But he had a good speech and we ended up all walking away with the cafeteria trays as a graduation gift from the college since that year the caf decided to go trayless and be all sustainable.

    • pegoleg says:

      You definitely had a good excuse to miss your sister’s graduation – getting back would have been insane.

      Cafeteria trays as a gifts sounds….kind of cool!

      My oldest daughter leaves for her new job this Sunday, and it’s more than half the country away from home. She’s flying back late the next Friday night, will probably get home around 2 am, then we leave at 6 am to get to her sister’s college graduation. She’ll fly back the next day. Now THAT’s the kind of thing that builds up so many brownie points, her sister won’t be able to complain about anything she ever does for the rest of her life.

  24. Laura says:

    Your rule about cheering me reminded me of my college graduation. At the beginning of the ceremony, the university president mentioned that they’d had (I’m making these numbers up, but you get the idea) 99,436 people graduate in previous years, and there were 792 people in this year’s class, so one of us would be the 100,000th student to graduate.

    Well, graduations are boring, even for the graduating class. So we all counted, out loud (but quietly enough that people on stage and in the general audience couldn’t hear us). And when the 100,000th person graduated, we went wild with applause and cheering.

    Afterwards, my mom asked me who the person was that we were all cheering for. She’d assumed it was someone who’d overcome some great hardship.

    • pegoleg says:

      They should have given the 100,000th graduate a free advanced degree or something. Cheapskates.

      I just remember that ours was so long, it was hotter than hell and I couldn’t hear a damn thing, mainly because of all the students (like me) who wouldn’t shut up.

  25. Margie says:

    Another excellent public service post! My last name ended in a ‘V’ before I was married, and a ‘W’ after – so I do know a bit about how much we envied AND despised all those who could leave the auditorium early.

    • pegoleg says:

      “envied AND despised” so true. All the time I’m glaring at the rudesters, I’m secretly wishing I wasn’t so burdened down with scruples.

  26. Wonderful! I’m now ready to face all these trying family events and graduations!

  27. My nephew opted not to go to his HS graduation, so I dodged that bullet. Still, there is the issue of the gift… Shizzle!

    • pegoleg says:

      He skipped the high school ceremony? I’ve heard of blowing off college, but most kids are more invested in high school. Still, you’re right. A gift must be given.

  28. susielindau says:

    Peg!!! How did I miss this valuable piece of information. My daughter graduated last weekend!
    What I find funny is how after all the years of milestones, college graduation is very low key. It is a small immediate family affair for most. Nothing like high school.
    The group ahead of us brought pom poms and air horns. No lie!!!!

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