Forming mature adults today is hard, but here's a place to start.
You hear about it all the time on the radio, the news, social media — those useless millennials can’t figure out how to be adults. They don’t save money or get married, their debt is tanking the economy; they can’t even move out of their parents’ houses, the losers!
I’m a millennial, so I’m familiar with the challenges our generation faces. The easy explanation is that student loans are crippling, and that the toxic mix of inflation, debt, and a stagnant economy have set us up for failure. There’s a lot of truth in this, but like most easy explanations, it doesn’t go far enough. The explanations that attempt to delve more deeply into the problems that plague millennials almost always paint us as helpless victims of our time or unpatriotic snowflakes. Which is why I was so grateful to read Ben Sasse’s recent words in The Wall Street Journal:
Our nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis. Too many of our children simply don’t know what an adult is anymore — or how to become one. Perhaps more problematic, older generations have forgotten that we need to teach them. It’s our fault more than it’s theirs.
This is something that I never hear Boomer pundits mentioning as they bemoan the destruction of America by the Millennials they raised. The Sasses are not ignoring their responsibility in teaching their children how to be adults — in fact, the five principles that guide their parenting are excellent.
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Sasse explains that they teach their children to resist consumption, embrace the pain of work, connect across generations, travel meaningfully, and become truly literate. All of these are virtues that are fundamental in the formation of a child’s character, so that when they have reached the age of adulthood they’re able enter society as fully-formed adults.
But I don’t think he goes quite far enough. American society used to have a collective understanding of what it meant to be an adult, and all adults shared the responsibility of helping to form all children. We’ve lost that completely.
Our culture now teaches consumerism from cradle to grave, along with the importance of avoiding pain. Our kids are separated by age group for all of their formative years, and the adult world is actively shutting itself off from children entirely. As for traveling meaningfully or becoming truly literate, forget about it. The entire social structure in which children are raised is antithetical to forming mature adults.
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In high school I had to take a break from my job as a barista so I could get extra tutoring in calculus and take an SAT prep class. These classes taught me literally nothing of use, nothing of value. They taught me to cram useless (to me) information into my head so that, like a trained monkey, I could perform well on whatever test was coming my way in the hopes of earning an A+ pat on the head, college scholarships, and a BRIGHT FUTURE in the CAREER OF MY CHOICE!
I got my A+. I even graduated valedictorian. I got a huge scholarship. And then I got pregnant and married my junior year, right before the economy crashed. All the SAT prep classes in the world couldn’t have prepared me for real life.
Spoiler alert: life is hard. It’s not about recognition for accomplishments or excellence in test-taking. It’s about hard work — thankless work, even, but work worth doing. It’s about doing even the work that’s not worth doing (hello, bed-making and picking up toddler toys) not because you can do it once and do it well, but because the work that goes unseen and unnoticed matters. In fact, it’s often the work that sustains lives.
I don’t mean to imply that my parents didn’t attempt to instill a work ethic in me — they did. We did chores, got jobs as soon as the law allowed, and generally worked more than any of our friends. But they were fighting against a social structure that undermined what they were trying to teach me at every turn.
I agree with the Ben Sasse’s principles, but I think we need to go farther than reminding parents of their responsibility to teach kids to be adults. Our whole society needs to be reminded that becoming an adult is about a lot more than turning 18. Kids need to learn that adults are responsible, ethical, hard-working, kind, and joyful — and the best way to teach them is by showing them.