Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult is ostensibly a parenting guide, and indeed, it serves as an excellent one. “Our kids are not ready for the world they are soon going to inherit,” the Nebraska senator writes, offering practical ideas for cultivating children’s grit, work ethic, and independence.
But at heart, the book tackles a much deeper question: Why do you do what you do?
If you’re a standard overachieving American quasi-helicopter parent, you likely asked yourself this very question at 7:15 a.m. last Saturday. Remember? You were standing, eyes slightly glazed, hair mussed, on the sideline of a soggy, misty soccer field. You wore flip-flops, which you immediately regretted. You would be on that squidgy sideline for six hours, you see, for it was a tournament — a very serious tournament — for a team of seven-year-olds who regularly reap their most consistent soccer-related amusements from picking dandelions, pantsing their teammates, or contentedly watching one of their fellow future Olympians blithely scoring a goal for the other team.
Oh, and you also just realized with a sudden jolt that it was your day to bring the team’s gluten-free, paleo-friendly, carbon-neutral snack personally endorsed by both the Dalai Lama and Leonardo DiCaprio. You forgot. “Why?” you asked yourself, falling to your knees, face plaintive towards the unrelenting, unforgiving stratus clouds as a stray and unsympathetic park pigeon tottered by. “Why? Why? WHYYYYYY?”
Just kidding! Also, I digress. Sasse’s book is not particularly concerned with soccer — if you’re interested, I’ll be the one launching the Great American Youth Soccer Liberation Front next fall — but it is quite concerned with parenting’s bigger picture. “Our goal is for our kids to be intentional about everything they do — to reject passivity and mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, of genuinely lifelong learning,” Sasse writes. “In other words, we want them to find the good life.”
Or, to put it another way: Why do you do what you do? For many American parents, caught up in a swirl of activity and competition, it might be difficult, if we’re really honest with ourselves, to find an immediate and satisfying answer. The Vanishing American Adult offers a grand opportunity to stop, slow down, and think.
American kids are often over-medicated, hooked on screens, failing to venture out into the world, losing touch with religious faith, and increasingly ‘intellectually fragile.’
Sasse quotes former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, who once noted that many modern adolescents are “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” Unfortunately, in many American circles, the tasks of building character and searching for meaning in life — tasks best guided by dedicated parents — have increasingly been outsourced to dubious parental substitutes, including the government, politicians, and various bureaucratic schools. The results have been dodgy at best.
American kids, Sasse notes, while citing plenty of disturbing statistics, are often over-medicated, hooked on screens, failing to venture out into the world, losing touch with religious faith, and increasingly “intellectually fragile.” It’s a “coming of age” crisis, he argues, and “these problems are very significantly the result of broader cultural assumptions that made parenting, paradoxically, more time consuming and ever-present” — cough, cough, 17-hour soccer tournament, join the revolution, cough, ahem — “and yet simultaneously less goal-oriented.”
The Vanishing American Adult lays several such goals on the table, all in the quest for “intentional” parenting — or to “live deliberately,” as Thoreau put it.
Among other things, Sasse argues that kids need to understand mortality, mix with older generations, develop strong reading habits, put production before consumption, nurture a strong work ethic, and travel beyond their comfort zones. Specific ideas for doing so close each chapter. (Here, as an aside, I must quibble with one piece of Sasse’s travel advice, in which he advises becoming “obsessed” with “lean packing.” No, no: The secret to great packing involves waiting until the last minute, falling into a mild panic, tossing everything you can think of into an oversized bag — with at least six pairs of impractical shoes — and then asking your husband to carry said bag. Voila! Works every time!)
The Vanishing American Adult offers repeated praise for the American experiment, exploring the unique nature of the American project in a way many of today’s college students might find foreign or even quaint. This, Sasse argues, is another part of the problem: “Many Americans coming of age today don’t understand the country they’re inheriting” — and too many, it turns out, think that politicians or the government can solve our most pressing personal and cultural problems.
These days, too many politicians — and the 24/7 reality show that surrounds them — seem best at distracting us from the important questions, not answering them. “The meaning of America is not in its government or its elected officials,” Sasse writes. The meaning, of course, is in the American people — and a stronger America means more Americans who think seriously about why they do what they do.
— Heather Wilhelm is a National Review columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.