During the 2016 presidential race, Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, struck a chord on social media with principled opposition to his party’s nominee, Donald Trump. But his posts on the political scene weren’t the only ones getting attention. That same year, his teenage daughter, Corrie, went away to apprentice at a cattle ranch, where she performed variety of unpleasant, sometimes gross-sounding jobs. Sasse began relaying some of her text-messaged observations to his Twitter followers under the heading “lessons from the ranch.” (A sample: “Today we checked to confirm some cows were pregnant—which Megan did by jamming her hand up their rectums. Eww.”)
That dirty, sweaty, achy work builds character is one of many axioms reverberating through the senator’s book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. During his tenure as president of Midland University (a small Lutheran school in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska), Sasse often observed students who seemed stuck in adolescence, having never acquired the virtues and character traits they’d need to raise families, run businesses, and revitalize communities. His book warns that Americans have lost touch with cultural scripts that used to guide the journey from childhood to responsible adulthood.
Matt Reynolds, CT’s associate editor for books, spoke with Sasse about how parents can equip their children to escape the protective cocoon of extended adolescence.
“Our entire nation,” you write, “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.” How would you summarize this coming-of-age crisis?
Adolescence is a gift that older generations have been giving to younger generations for a couple thousand years. But it isn’t a concept that’s necessarily existed in all times and places.
Childhood is a state of dependence and a time of innocence, and our kids need to be shepherded and protected during that time. And adolescence, as a time of intentionally transitioning between childhood and adulthood, is a good and a special thing. It’s a kind of protected greenhouse phase, where our kids have hit puberty and are on their way to full biological adulthood, but without the expectation of being fully formed adults in a moral, educational, or economic sense.
But here’s the key: Adolescence should be term-limited. If it becomes a destination, it becomes a trap. There should be a difference between being age 10 and 15, or age 20 and 25. Right now, so many of our kids don’t know the difference. And this isn’t just a danger for the kids; it’s a danger for a republic that prizes and depends upon self-control, self-discipline, and self-government.
To be clear, I’m not blaming the kids themselves. I place most of the blame on the adults who should be helping them understand what it means to become mature and self-reliant. We’re losing our sense of which training wheels to remove and when.
When my wife and I were parents of a newborn, all the other new parents in our social circles were concerned with doing the right things. Everybody was reading books on babies and healthy sleep habits. We were always thinking about these questions. But when your kids move toward the teenage years, there’s just much less conversation what parenting well looks like. Increasingly, I’m finding that people are desperate to have that conversation.