The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis--And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, A Review
By Nancy E. Head
"We are going to need America's children to rise to their best in the years to come, because a nation of adult-children cannot be a nation of self-governing people.
"A plea for self-discipline and self-control is the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control from without. For in this broken world of lawless souls, there will be control; there will be government. Order-seeking and security-seeking people, as well as those in search of power for their own purposes, will invariably seek to hold back the chaos of the world. The question is whether people will control themselves or submit to the control of others." Ben Sasse
When I was a college student in my thirties, I found a couple simple ways for dealing with stress. And not to brag, but my stress was significant.
I had a part-time job as a bank teller, and yes, that's a stressful job. I was a single mother dealing with the aftermath of an antagonistic divorce, a leaky roof, and a car that somehow seemed invisible to other drivers who would periodically hit it with their cars.
Stress-relief 101 included a more than once a week walk through the grocery store. These trips were not the weekly restocking of my larder, in which my five children typically participated thereby generally ensuring the opposite of stress relief. My solo store visits were brief times at the end of classes. They included listening to benign music and unwinding while making a few small purchases mostly involving comfort foods.
Inexpensive retail therapy.
My second stress relieving activity was much simpler. It involved shutting and locking a stall door in the women's room and then sitting down. Shutting myself inside a small space that no one dared invade was another uncostly way to let go of a storehouse of adrenalin.
An unenlightened university of the 1980s and '90s did not provide me with a puppy to cuddle.
I don't know how I got through.
In his new book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis--And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, Senator Ben Sasse explores the changes in our society that has led to the provision of puppies on college campuses among other symptoms of an extended adolescence reluctant to find its end in adult responsibility.
Sasse points out more than once that the book is not about government policy. It's a book for families--families in a culture where television "'adultifies' children while infantilizing adults." It wasn't always this way.
"What separated childhood from adulthood previously was a secret or guarded knowledge about full adult reality that was understandable only by literacy. Adults knew much that children did not--things about sex and money and violence and death. But mainly sex. In a literate culture, secrets are kept in books. If you wanted to know what those hidden secrets were, you had to be able to navigate books. . . . Because reading takes work, self-discipline was at the heart of gaining access to complex adult worlds" (51).
Television has introduced adult ideas to children who remain children longer than their peers of yore. But television isn't the only culprit.
"In the face of unprecedented prosperity and freedom from convention, the generation coming of age is stuck in a hazy, extended adolescence, never allowed simply to be children, and yet also rarely nudged to be fully adult" (54).
Part One of the book presents "Our Passivity Problem." Part Two lays out a plan to raise children to become self-governing adults--"An Active Program."
This program includes kids spending less time with others their own age and more time with both elder and younger.
"[O]lder kids who spend time with younger kids learn to be nurturing, while younger kids learn concrete lessons about the coming stages of intellectual development and economic productivity, as well as how to navigate communities larger than themselves" (93).
And in the right kind of situations, kids can learn to work. To work hard. As homeschooling parents, the Sasses sent their 14-year-old daughter to work for a month on a family run cattle ranch. The girl was eager for this adventure, and once the story got out, her father was inundated with requests from other parents wanting their children to learn how to have that kind of working/learning experience as well.
Parents want kids to learn hard work, but we live in a culture designed to protect kids from work. More than one lawyer contacted Sasse to inform him that his daughter's stint in cattle farming "probably violated labor laws" (145).
No parent involved in this discussion wanted to sign their sons and daughters up for indentured servitude. They just want to prepare them for the realities of adulthood.
The pendulum that swung as far as finding six-year-olds engaging in the factory work of the 1900s has swung too far the other way. Sasse wants us to find a medium that protects kids from exploitation and allows them to find adulthood at an appropriate time.
The closest he comes to discussing public policy is his chapter on the failures of the current education system. Sasse embraces the classical method proposed by Dorothy Sayers.
This system permeates homeschooling circles and has made its mark on many private schools in the U.S. and even around the world. Such a program allows students to achieve at their own pace and move into college or a vocation as they are ready--which often happens sooner rather than later.
Sasse encourages us and our children to pursue lives of less consumption and less comfort.
His culminating argument is for enhanced literacy. That means extensive reading, which involves cultivating the habit early and often. And it includes a literacy about America's founding--what it took to embark on this great political experiment of freedom.
Hint: It took broad and well-developed literacy.
Sasse's book is a great read for anyone interested in learning how our failure to launch crisis developed and continues to worsen--and how to fix it.
It's a straightforward discussion from a public figure who is a historian. A man who knows where we came from, where we are going, and how we can change course to avoid disaster.
If only we are willing to do the hard work to get there.