The goal of parenthood is to raise our children into adults. And as you might have noticed, we are failing miserably at this task. Senator Ben Sasse reflects on the urgency of addressing this crisis in his book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (St. Martin’s, 2017). He states his case emphatically:
I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history. We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them (2).
Ultimately we are undergoing an identity crisis, losing our ability to remember who we are and to envision a better future: “Tragically, we’re in the process of abandoning our children to Neverland, blissfully unaware of their past or their future, living on in a smothering present. . . . It is nothing short of a national existential crisis” (30). This existential crisis is a battle for our country’s existence. Will we raise adults who believe in something and are willing to undertake the sacrifices to make it happen? Will they be willing to sacrifice their self-interest for a spouse and family?
We have to be intentional about how to help our kids become responsible adults. Therefore, Sasse argues that “a core part of our calling as parents—aims not to coddle [our children] but to see them toughened up” including “to learn how to suffer” (140). Right now, we’re mostly doing the opposite:
I think the problem is that we already overmanaged the lives of young adults rather than that we are not offering them enough bubble wrap. I take issue with the notion that young adults are incapable of making choices or acting independently. It is clearly true that they are very good at it, but that is because we failed to help them learn how to seize the reins and do it themselves much earlier (76).
If kids are going to begin acting like adults, we need to give them the responsibility in their teenage years. “Tenderly but intentionally introducing our children to the responsibilities of adulthood throughout their adolescence would be the better pathway again today” (55).
The two things that standout to me the most in the book are the need for good education and learning how to work. The battle for our children may come down primarily to these two issues, along with faith formation. Sasse rightly claims that “America’s future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes—and such thinking demands a rebirth of reading” (208). In a time of great fracture, we need to learn how to “argue our positions honorably, and, hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern” (ibid.). As we are cutting down on substantial reading through the Common Core, Sasse calls for broader shared reading and provides his own recommended reading lists of great classics, which he says are relevant, worth reading multiple times, and part of the great conversation.
The renewal of education, however, will also require overcoming the direct challenges to it, especially technology and a broken educational paradigm. In particular, “screen time seems to imbue . . . kids with a zombie-like passivity. They detect a decline of agency, of initiative, of liveliness” (4). TV, he also recognizes, as a “total disclosure medium” (51) that adultifies children (in the wrong way) and infantilizing adults, who see responsible adulthood as an affliction to be avoided. We also have to overcome a broken model of education. Our kids spend more time in school with vastly more money spent than before, and yet we see less results, with little preparation for work and life. The combination of the dominance of technology and this broken model producing young adults who cannot think deeply or responsibly and creatively shape the future.
Part of the renewal of education, which will take place at home, is learning how to work again, as we face a “deficit of life skills required for self-reliance” (40). “Kids no longer know how to produce” (18), and institutionalized schooling has displaced the work and environment where a coming of age occurred (19). The response entails “building and strengthening character,” requiring “extreme measures and the intentional pursuit of gritty work experiences” (139). We have to teach our children not only how to think, but how to do things—how to care for themselves and embrace the cultural work of shaping the world through hard work. We have to recover a sense of the goodness and beauty of working with our hands.
Overall, Sen. Sasse provides a great diagnosis of a central cultural problem and points us in the right direction to overcome it. I offer one caution, however. We can’t let self-reliance become an excessive individualism. Pulling ourselves up by our own boot straps can only go so far. We have to rejuvenate our country also by a deeper sense of community and belonging. We will need the help of community to be successful in raising our children.
Hard work and better education are crucial for our future, but we can only overcome our parenting crisis if we also orient our kids to what matters most, what lasts beyond this life. When it comes to faith life in the Church, we also have to make sure we’re not keeping our kids in a childish faith. This may be why they leave the Church in high numbers in college when they leave home. They have to meet God and make a decision to follow Him and have opportunities to live this decision out.