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The Vanishing American Adult

The newest parenting handbook is a guide for those who are determined not to raise weak, entitled kids, ill-prepared to inherit the earth. Author Senator Ben Sasse sees a coming of age crisis and wants to remedy the way our children spend their childhood.

The Vanishing American Adult beckons us to question the coddled kids who lack resilience to face life’s challenges. Sasse began to notice that all around him, including his own home, were children who could not stretch the moment things felt too difficult. When his daughters complained that they were unable to sleep because of a broken air conditioner, he decided that too many ‘needs’ were really not ‘needs’ at all. Recalling his own childhood of learning the value of ‘real work,’ rising at dawn and weeding soybean fields at the age of 7, he felt as if he, as a parent, was a failure. Bob and his wife, Melissa, concluded that building and strengthening their kids’ character will require extreme measures.

They sent their 14-year-old daughter to work on a cattle ranch so that she could experience the “unrelenting encounter with daily necessity.” Their directive was to make us proud by working hard, ask for coaching and never let your overseers hear you complain. Their daughter’s messages described her wet and dirty work and prompted Sasse to ask how we as a society can get our kids to experience a similar wakeup call.

Sasse says that teens today are smart, resume driven and talented but anxious, timid and lost. We give them an array of extracurricular activities, develop their gifts, and do our best to help them stand out from the rest of their college-bound crowd. The truth is they are trapped in a bubble of privilege. There is incredible unhappiness that hovers above.

Quoting a former Yale professor who noted that many modern adolescents are “great at what they are doing but with no idea why they are doing it,” Sasse urges parents to stay clear of idleness and passiveness. We never know what life brings. Our world is filled with economic disruption. Our children need to grow more self-reliant as an alternative to becoming weak byproducts of ‘affluenza’. Perhaps we are unintentionally producing ‘resume virtues’ instead of giving them ‘eulogy virtues’.

Ultimately we are raising a generation of kids who are hooked on screens, lacking faith, overmedicated and anxiety driven. Add to that the culture where kids are mostly in touch with only peers on chats and social media and you have kids who are unanchored, losing touch with the older generation who provide wisdom and a sense of knowing where they’ve come from. Too many children lack idealism; a sense of purpose deludes them.

Sasse’s book has resonated with parents trying hard to raise children but meeting up with frustration and a sense of entitlement. Outsourcing parental responsibilities and character development can never replace ethics and instilling values in the home.

Parenting Goals

Some of the goals we are directed toward in the book are to reject mindless consumption, embrace work ethics, be productive, galvanize genuine lifelong learning, encourage the power of reading books, don’t hand children things expecting nothing in return and be intentional about everything we do.

Raise children to be active and engaged; curious about the world around them. Remember that core experiences produce character. Hard work teaches us to value the gift of those who labor. Sitting around waiting for meals to be served or never getting one hands dirty does not allow us to appreciate all that goes into daily living. Parents who hover and don’t allow children to sweat or fail, deny their sons and daughters the gift of resilience.

Practical Actions

What specific actions can we do to encourage children to nourish inner strength and character?

A few suggestions from the book are:

  • Start young. Send two year olds on daily tasks within the home that create pattern and rhythm that can be upgraded to more complicated tasks as your child grows.
  • Build toward adult work. Provide children the opportunity when they are young to handle responsibilities like purchasing things for the family so that when they are older there will not be a sense of being lost at sea.
  • Babysit together. Have your children learn to take care of younger children and babies.
  • Reevaluate paid for services to see which ones your children can handle.
  • Visit elder relatives and acquaintances on a regular basis. Find tasks your children can do to be of help to them. Even reading can become a source of joy to one who is unable to.
  • When something goes wrong on a trip or with a product have your child participate. Don’t automatically fix it. Ask for their ideas and plan.
  • Take children to your work. Take them to other people’s work places.
  • Have your child volunteer their services to organizations and their community houses of worship.
  • Ask older people about their first jobs.

Providing Meaning to Our Children

Senator Sasse writes that he believes that “suffering can be virtuous”. While wanting to help children discover the gift of resilience and good work ethic I don’t think ‘suffering’ is the right word.

Judaism values ‘mesirus nefesh’ – self-sacrifice. Suffering connotes pain, agony and misery. No parent wishes their child to suffer. For too many children adversity has become a way of life.

Self-sacrifice entails the power of giving beyond ourselves, of opening our hearts to the needs of others and then acting on it even when it feels too difficult or arduous. We can feel ourselves stretch and grow. Toiling despite tiredness and accomplishing your goal provides meaning to life. Working for a cause, not because there is a prize promised, but simply because you believe in greater good, nourishes idealism.

Children require a goal larger than good grades or scoring a homerun for their baseball team. Knowing that they make a difference in this world brings passion and purpose. Giving your time, hard work and passion propels our children to build themselves and contribute to healing a broken world.

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