Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) is a deep thinker with wicked sense of humor. He joined Glenn on radio to discuss his new book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.
In the book, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body — and explains how parents can encourage them.
His refreshingly honest approach to parenting gives practical steps on how to cross the finish line and reach the ultimate goal: raising independent, resilient adults.
Listen to this segment from The Glenn Beck Program:
GLENN: There’s truly so much in this new book by Senator Ben Sasse that has nothing to do with politics, has everything about restoring America. The — the problems really stem from within our own homes. No matter who you are, no matter how big you think you are or how much, you know — you’re a United States senator. The most important work you will ever do will be with inside the walls of your own home. And he has — it’s not just a screed against what’s happening. This is an actual plan to help restore it. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-reliance.
Ben, I don’t even know where to start on this book. I want to start on one of the — no, let’s start with you defining the problem. And then I want to start with one of the solutions in the book that I am personally going to do with my family. I think it’s such a great idea. Start with what the problem is.
BEN: Thanks. So I think a lot of our kids are caught in a state of perpetual adolescence, and that’s not good for them. And it’s not good for our communities. And it’s not good for the republic. But the book is not — The Vanishing American Adult is not a blame game book. It’s two-thirds, as you said, Glenn, constructive project. What do we do about it? How do we make this better? But if we were going to lay some blame, we’re not laying it really directly at the feet of teens and 20-somethings. This is not an anti-millennial book.
It is more about parents and grandparents. We haven’t done a good job of recognizing that this new category of perpetual adolescence that’s drifted in, has let us sort of start to think of adolescence as a destination, as opposed to a means to an end. Childhood is a glorious part of life. It’s supposed to be protected. Our kid’s innocence is supposed to be guarded. And then adulthood, you get to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the heights of human achievement and loving your neighbor and building the new app that’s going to change the world.
Adolescence is that transitional state between the two. And it’s not an eternal idea. It’s only a couple thousand years old that we’ve had this idea, that you hit puberty, you get to biological adulthood, and you don’t have to be totally an independent adult yet. And that’s a pretty special thing, except if you act like adolescence is a destination. And right now, it’s really hard to tell ten and 15 and 20-year-olds apart. That’s not good.
GLENN: I will tell you, it’s sometimes hard to tell parents apart from the 15-year-old.
BEN: Yeah. I mean, we have started to think of life as different consumption opportunities.
We are the richest people at the richest time and place in all of human history. Of course, there are some bumps over the course of the last seven, eight, nine years. But this is a couple decades in the making problem, and it’s going to last for, you know, a half a century in the future.
We are largely unable to feel in our belly the distinction between production and consumption. And that’s new across time and space.
GLENN: Explain — explain the difference.
BEN: So when you work, when you’re needed, when you’re producing something, when you’re serving your neighbor, you do something that is for the benefit of somebody else. Consumption is a different kind of a thing. And lots of consumption is great, right? I mean, there are all sorts of things, that when we consume a fine meal, it is recreating. It revivifies us to go back and serve again.
But we’re not satisfied in life if we just consume more and more stuff. And right now, we’re having a kind of pop cultural sense that we’re drifting toward a world where more and more cotton candy may be good for us. We all know that’s not true.
There’s a two and a seven-minute dopamine hit that feels good, to take more cotton candy. But two and seven hours later, let alone two and seven years later, I never look back and say, “Oh, that was great. I’m glad I did that.”
And, right now, our kids are not developing a work ethic in any sort of intentional way, and it’s our fault that we’re not celebrating scar tissue with them.
GLENN: So let’s go — celebrating scar tissue. This is the kind of stuff that is in this book that you — please go out and buy this book. It is — just that is worth the price of — celebrating scar tissue. What do you mean by that, Ben?
BEN: Well, scar tissue is the foundation of future character, right? At our house, when we get stitches, we throw a little party. Because if we get stitches and it didn’t come with a spinal injury that’s going to have permanent problems for us, we think we got away with something.
My wife and I use the frame — and I want to be clear, we’re not setting our family up as a model in this. We stumble and fall every day. We are sinners. But we have a shared theory of what we’re trying to accomplish, as parents. And we want to get our kids toward an independent adulthood. And so Melissa and I use this idea that a huge part of parenting kids from eight to ten to 12 to 14 to 16 is about training wheel removal exercises. How can we help them get from a place where they need our protective — they need our protection, where they’re still dependent. Get them to a place where they’re independent, so they can live a life of gratitude to God by serving their neighbor and doing something productive.
I’m a no-training wheels guy when I teach my kids to bike. I’m sort of a freak about this. I’ve trained my three kids and a lot of neighborhood kids. I like teaching kids how to ride a bike. But we don’t do training wheels at our house.
The time we bubble wrap them — because I’m critical of bubble wrapping in this book. But when we’re going to teach them how to ride a bike, we wrap them in all their snow gear. Right? They got ski pants and a big winter coat on. We put a hat on them.
And I put the bike, no training wheels, on a slightly declining hill, and I run behind them. And I bat them — I’m straddling the back wheel. And I bat them, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, trying to let them finally catch their balance. And when they do, it’s like a two-hour learning process. And all of a sudden, they catch their balance a few times, and it’s glorious. Like there’s this moment. And now they can ride a bike.
And the goal of teaching a kid to ride a bike is not for them to have training wheels forever. It’s for them to ride next to you and smell the flowers and have a great workout. And so much of parenting should be about figuring out, how can we take off the training wheels? Let’s protect them as we’re taking them off. But the goal is to get them to independence.
GLENN: Ben, I’ve talked to you several times, and I’ve always been impressed by you. But this is remarkable stuff. And you and your family are going to be added to my family’s nightly prayers.
BEN: Thank you.
GLENN: You have a lot — a lot to teach. Can we jump to a part in the book where you’re talking about the five-foot shelf?
BEN: Yeah. Yeah.
I — the book is structured. One-third is cultural stage setting. Where did this perpetual adolescence come from?
Then the last two-thirds is, let’s think of five things we can do to help our kids realize what it means to be an independent adult. Because it’s not just progressing through grades in school. That’s one of the problems, is that we’ve started to think that what growing up is about is about checking these markers of just grade progression. And mostly school, which is really important, is a tool. It’s a means to an end.
But we want them to get to these certain ends. So the Vanishing American Adult is built around developing a work ethic. It’s about learning to limit consumption. Distinguish among different kinds of consumption and especially know the difference between need and want. Don’t assume that everything you might feel a yearning for, an appetite for, that you might want, that doesn’t make it necessarily a need. How do you learn how to travel? How do you build intergenerational relationships? And to your point, Glenn, how do we learn to be a truly literate people? Not functionally literate. Not, can you read a passage if you sit down to do it? But how can you build appetites, where you want to be a reader?
Because our republic is premised on the idea of deliberation. The ability to be dispassionate and to reflect on other ideas, to persuade or to be persuaded. Not to be in a safe space, but to actually encounter hard and different ideas. And so we built this idea. It’s related to some canon fights. But it’s not really about a one-size-fits-all canon for America. It would be fun to have that discussion too.
But it is, how do I teach my kids to get to a place where they’ve got a shelf of books that they want to read, that they’ve started to read, that they want to go back to again? How do we get them to love both quantity and quality, as they actually become appetitive readers?
GLENN: So, but, for instance, the founding documents, how do you get your kids to want to read those?
BEN: Well, for one thing, you let them understand that there were big debates, right?
We sometimes read these documents, and it feels like they’re Scripture handed down from heaven. And everything about them can start to feel boring because it’s just eternal truth, where there was no dispute.
And so one of the things we do — again, distinguishing quantity and quality. We want them to be addicted to quality. We want them to be formed and shaped by a certain set of books. I sort of made up the idea that the average width of a book is about an inch. And so we call it a five-foot shelf because we wanted to put 60 books on it.
We want our kids to have a 60-book 5-foot shelf, that when they leave home, they’ve already started through these books, and these are books they want to go back to.
Well, it’s fine for us to use quantity as a pathway into quality. When my kids were seven and eight and nine and starting to read, we just wanted them to read more, more, more. And so we let them read stuff that felt a little bit cotton candy-ish. And then once they were developing a real appetite and a desire to read, then we’d start substituting in a little bit more vegetables for some of the ice cream and the cotton candy.
GLENN: So let me go through — some of the books that you say are on your shelf. And it’s different for everybody. C.S. Lewis. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King. All understandable. You put George Orwell, Karl Marx, and Moneyball.
BEN: Well, so first what I tried to do is I wouldn’t let there be more than five books in any particular category. So first I thought about genres. My wife and I got out a bunch of index cards, and we started looking at our shelf and pulling down books that we would say, “This is so important, that even if I think disagree with big pieces of it — so Marx, as an example, or Rousseau’s Emile, which is sort of one of the most interesting books ever written on child rearing, but written by an absolutely despicable person. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you know, abandoned his own kids at an orphanage so he could have more time to write, and then he had the hubris to write a book about how you would raise kids.
So there are people that I strongly disagree with, but I wanted the criteria to be, this is a book so important that I would want to read it more than twice in my life, and I would want to spend 20 bucks to buy it, to give to other people I love and care about. Because I’d like to frame a debate with them, where we’d keep coming back to some of these ideas.
So we’ve got index cards out, started naming a bunch of our books, started building stacks. We’d name categories, like, you know, sort of fundamental theology, or American history, or founding documents, or markets, or American literature. In each of these, we would only let there be five books. You had to max out in that.
So I was trying to get to 12 categories of five or fewer books. And I just randomly realized that I had a prison lit category. Prison literature, from Mandela to the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther.
GLENN: Martin Luther King.
BEN: To Martin Luther King. A whole bunch of really interesting stuff that’s been written when people were in prison.
And so we just sort of organically built a list. It took weeks and months of haggling at my house as we came up with a list. And our list is totally imperfect. And when people read it, they’re going to want to scream, “My goodness, what’s wrong with you, man? There’s no poetry category on your list. You’re a broken intellect.”
And when people want to start arguing about our boundaries of our list, then I think we’ve succeeded. Because The Vanishing American Adult is not saying I know the one way to parent; it’s that lots of American parents are worried that we’re not parenting well and we don’t have a deliberative context to talk with our friends and neighbors about it. And the purpose of The Vanishing American Adult is to bring people together into conversation, where we argue about this, because we’re all going to do a better job if we’re more intentional about our parenting.
GLENN: So, Ben, you were supposed to come in today. You were going to be with us, but you had a vote that you had to be back for. And I wanted to — you offered to come in and sit with me at 5 o’clock in the morning to do an hour on television.
And I said “no” to that. Because what I would really like to do is see if there’s a time where you and your wife can come in and just talk about this.
I think — I think this is — it is exactly where my head is right now. That we are in a culture of absolute chaos because we don’t know what he is true anymore. And everything is up for grabs. And we have to find our way to putting things back together for our kids. Enough for them to be able to then wrestle with some of these new ideas that are causing chaos.
Can I invite you and your wife to come in together? Would she ever say “yes” to that?
BEN: I like it a lot. In general, she doesn’t like to do media, but for you, on this topic, I think there’s a chance I could twist her arm and persuade her to do it. So let’s talk more about that offline.
One of the things that you said there that I want to completely underscore is the word “virtue.”
You didn’t use it, but you were speaking about it. When people hear virtue right now, that we all get a squeamishness: Oh, that sounds like a highly moralistic tone.
Actually, the root of virtue, it’s from the Latin word for “strength.” And a huge part of what America presupposes is that when we go through hard times, we individuals and we families and we local communities are actually tough enough to navigate lots of these problems. And right now, we have a kind of national drift toward a belief that we’re all so fragile, that, A, these problems probably can’t be solved. And if they can be solved, they’d better be solved by some strongman who says, “I will be your political leader. I can fix everything.”
That is not an American idea. And the truth is, these young people — these teens and 20-somethings — are going to have to be more resilient.
GLENN: They’re the heroic hero generation.
BEN: They have to be more perseverant than anybody before. Because nobody — we’ve never had a time when 40 and 45 and 50-year-olds regularly lost their jobs because of technological change. And that’s the world that our young people are going to enter. We need them to be tough. It’s because we love them that you want them to be gritty, not because you’re trying to harm them, but because you want them to be able to navigate this world and love the true and the beautiful and serve their neighbor.
Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-reliance. You’re going to be hearing a lot of that on this program. Please, go out and buy this book now. This is one that every single American who wants to solve the problems and are tired of looking at the problem in Washington need to put their nose in this book for a while. It will spur you into some action.
Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult. We’ll talk to you again soon, Ben. Thank you so much.
BEN: Great to be with you.
GLENN: You bet. Senator from Nebraska.