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Ben Sasse: Adolescence Is a Gift, but Extended Adolescence Is a Trap

The Nebraska senator wants parents to get serious about shepherding kids into responsible adulthood.
Ben Sasse: Adolescence Is a Gift, but Extended Adolescence Is a Trap
Image: Ben Sasse

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.

You return often to the word “passivity” in describing the anxieties that parents have about the children they’re raising. Can you elaborate on what it means for emerging adults to exhibit passivity?

When I became a college president, I was 37. The college was in danger of going bankrupt, and I had been hired because of my specialty as a business turnaround guy, not because I was going to be shaping the lives of undergraduates.

But as I settled into the job, and I got to know some of the students, I just repeatedly saw an inability to grab life by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. So I started to reflect on that and to worry about what was wrong. I would ask friends of mine in business, donors to the college, and other members of the school administration whether they were observing something similar. And people started taking my question as an opportunity for them to worry aloud.

People would often remark, for instance, about the way smartphones seem to sap the energy and zest of our kids and grandkids—and how the kids would admit, later on, that there was a lethargy that came from having sat around and played video games all day. A friend from New York told me about how his 14- and 10-year-old children had loved going to Central Park and just playing catch or throwing a Frisbee with their friends. But without being nudged, they had never wanted to do it on their own. It was disturbing and jarring.

Broadly speaking, what are some of the historical and cultural trends that have brought about this phenomenon of extended adolescence?

As Americans, we’re the wealthiest people in the wealthiest nation in human history. And I think that a huge share of what we consider lower-middle-class people are still among the richest people the world has ever known. When you combine the fact of having had most of our needs met for most of our population, with the fact that we’ve separated the home from the workplace, with the fact that we’ve segregated our generations, with the fact that we’ve siloed teenage life inside school buildings, you end up with a world where kids lack a gut-level, intuitive grasp of how to grow up and meet the burdens of adulthood.

Among older generations of Americans, there was actually a big debate about the word “leisure,” and whether that concept was a dangerous misrepresentation of what would be better understood as recreation. Of course we need breaks and pauses. You need to eat, and you need to rest. But the purpose of these things is to be recreated—to get back to living a life of gratitude to God by serving your neighbor. You’re being recreated to go become creative and productive again.

Adolescence that revolves around mere leisure creates kids who lack a deep appreciation for the distinction between production and consumption. I think that’s dangerous and stultifying.

In the book, you critique the prevailing model of American public schooling. Where do you think we’ve gone wrong? And how should we reconceive of education in order to create the kind of sturdy, self-reliant citizens our nation needs?

It’s important to note that by and large, this book isn’t about politics, unless you think of politics in the broadest conception of the life of the polis, the community. For the most part, I avoid any discussion of specific public policies. And it’s also important to note that I’m not trying to critique public schools because of the way they’re funded.

What I’m critiquing, instead, is the homogenized form of our schooling, and the assumption that institutionalizing teenage life is the best way to give our students a well-rounded education and prepare them for adulthood. On net, the spread of mass secondary education from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century is a very good thing. But it’s not an unqualified good. I’d like to see more openness to schooling that takes a larger variety of institutional forms. Public schooling can absolutely work wonders, but there are more ways to become a wise, well-rounded citizen than spending all day in a classroom.

Who is John Dewey, and why should parents be aware of his influence on public education?

John Dewey was a polymath who did an extraordinary number of things with his life. He had a huge intellect. He lectured on an amazing range of topics and wrote extraordinary number of books. But Dewey’s most important legacy can be summed up like this: He was the father of the modern secondary school.

Dewey is often misunderstood as some sort of neutral, utilitarian institution builder. But in reality, he was a zealous atheist who wanted to develop the school into a totalistic institution. His goal was to have the school to displace the formative influence of parents. Now, the public school as I know it—as the son of a public school teacher, as a product of public schooling in Fremont, Nebraska, and as the husband of someone who’s worked as a public school teacher and administrator—can do wonderful things. But ideally, it’s a tool in service of the parents, who have ultimate responsibility for raising their kids. Dewey wanted to use the school not to serve the parents or to serve students on behalf of parents; Dewey wanted the school to displace the parents.

In the book, you identify some habits you that parents should want to cultivate in their adolescent children. Can you talk about some of those habits and the difference they make?

I want my kids to be hard workers. And I want them to be disciplined in their consumption, so that they develop the ability to live, if necessary, on a lot less than they’re accustomed to. I want them to develop a gratitude for what they have, because they know what it’s like to go without certain pleasures and comforts.

I want my kids to have an independence from peer culture. I want them to have meaningful interactions with adults, rather than spending all their time around people their own age. They need to have enough freedom of mind not to be trapped in the momentary obsessions of other teenagers.

I want my kids to become wise about the fact that they’re mortal, and so they need to have a certain familiarity with old people in their declining years. And on the other end, they need to understand the glories and the vigor of new life. They should have some practice in caring for babies.

I want my kids to have some degree of travel experience. I want them to see different types of topography and geography, and to get a glimpse at different cultural practices and ways of living. And I want them to have the eyes that come from having traveled, eyes attuned to the distinctive features of the places where they live. I’m a big fan of giving our kids travel experiences for the same reason C. S. Lewis touted the virtues of learning a second language. As Lewis put it, the reason you learn a second language is not just to learn that language, but to better understand the grammar, the vocabulary, and the structure of your own language.

And finally, I want my kids to be devoted readers. I want them to immerse themselves in good books, so that they can argue for ideas at length, link them to the ideas expressed by others, and debate them on a serious level with their friends.

In the chapter on work, you’re upfront about wanting your kids to “suffer.” Plenty of parents would confess a desire to improve their children’s work ethic, but not everyone would want them to “suffer.” Why do you gravitate toward this language?

A huge part of coming of age is learning to understand and appreciate the intentional building of scar tissue. That’s where character comes from. Because of the curse of original sin, the world we live in is filled with thorns. And the scar tissue that results is akin to bodybuilding for the mind and the soul. I think that developing a work ethic includes realizing your potential to persevere through situations that, at first glance, would seem impossible to endure.

Reading through some of your thoughts on hard work and frugality made me think of poorer immigrant families in this country. In one sense, they’re well-positioned to heed your advice, in that they don’t have the luxury of being anything but hard-working and frugal. And yet, in another sense, poverty can open the door to possible government dependency and the dangers that result. How might your recommendations apply to families in this situation?

Again, the book is not about politics or policy, but I do think there is a great danger at the bottom of our income ladder right now, in that there’s an anti-work bias built into many of our welfare programs. In some cases, where a family is receiving government assistance, getting even a part-time job doesn’t make economic sense, because even if you’re earning extra income, it’s not enough to offset the loss in benefits you’re no longer eligible to receive. I’d like to see reforms in our welfare programs to address this, so that parents have an incentive to seek jobs that enable them not only to provide for themselves, but also to model the virtues of hard work for their kids.

But the good news is that among so many of our immigrant communities, you see a celebration of work, productivity, and service to neighbor, as part and parcel of what being an American means. One key definer of Americans is that we’ve always been a people who have loved and celebrated work.

Is the church in any way to blame for the current coming-of-age crisis? And if so, how can it be part of the solution?

I wouldn’t want to say that the church is to blame, but surely many of our churches are apt to take after our culture, in that they’re not always teaching teenagers to come of age in an intentional way. There’s a great cost to the generational segregation in worship events and other church programs. Ideally, our churches should be places of rich intergenerational encounters, so that Christian high schoolers aren’t obsessed only with peer culture.

In the book, I emphasize the role of reading in helping us to overcome the crisis of perpetual adolescence. And here is an area where the church can really take the lead. The cultural critic Neil Postman once defended the idea that the most broadly literate people in human history were the Puritans coming out of the English Reformation. And he understood evangelical Christianity to be fundamentally a book-based religion. We are a people of the book. We have a story; we have a canon. All of this presupposes a kind of broad literacy. If we’re serious about our faith, we inherently become serious readers.

The themes of independence and self-reliance feature prominently in your work. But when you look at the Christian faith, there’s a powerful sense that our situation is one of dependence: both on God and on other people. How do you bring together the virtues of self-reliance with the Bible’s emphasis on dependence?

The temptation we have, as modern people, is to think we can conquer the world—that the curse of human fallenness isn’t big enough to reach us. What the Bible teaches is true: We are radically dependent, on God and on each other. We can’t keep the Earth in its orbit on our own. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we want to learn to pray moment by moment, expressing our gratitude to God for all that he provides.

So that needs to be a note of caution. On the other hand, the fact of our dependence doesn’t mean that we can’t make plans for the future: plans to secure our housing, to have enough food, to provide for our children.

When I think about my 13- and 15-year-old girls, I want them to be resilient. I want them to be strong. I want them to be able to discipline their passions. I want them to be able to solve problems. I want them to be able to work hard. I want them to be able to persevere. I want them to be able to limit their appetites and their consumption needs. I want them to be prepared to serve their neighbors, either in a crisis or in a habitual, day-to-day way. And right now, I worry that we’re drifting toward producing teens who assume if there’s a problem, someone else is going to have to fix it. And that’s not a very fulfilling way to think about life.

In certain ways, President Trump represents the antithesis of the kind of citizen you want American adolescents to become, in that he wouldn’t strike most people as especially frugal, resilient, or self-disciplined. Do you think that having a figure like Trump occupying the White House sets a counterproductive example?

Because I believe deeply in limited government, and in the American tradition of separation of powers, I believe we shouldn’t instinctively look to Washington to find the model for a life well lived, much less any one individual in Washington. The fact that many people who have invested grand hopes in government are newly worried about the potential abuses of government gives us an opportunity to re-learn the idea that we should not put our trust in princes (Ps. 146:3).

And yet, in a republic, civic virtue is critically important. If we don’t pass on an understanding of these virtues to the next generation, we’ll lose the self-discipline and self-control that make limited government possible. In a fallen world, there will always be people who threaten to take your life, your liberty, and your stuff, and so we’ll never be able to do without certain forms of compulsion and control. But if you can plant those constraints inside the citizen’s own soul, in the form of self-discipline, there’s less of a need to impose them by force. And so we lose something very special if we fail to discuss and to model the civic virtues, in particular the virtues of deferred gratification and self-restraint. And it’s not any one individual, but all of Washington that is failing to model those kinds of civic, “small R” republican virtues.

June
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Ben Sasse: Adolescence Is a Gift, but Extended ...