The DNA of Adulthood
About the Guest
When it comes to raising our children to become, healthy functional adults, a "DNA of adulthood" is necessary. Ben Sasse, U.S. Senator for Nebraska, explains how that DNA is rapidly disappearing from our culture, and that the skills required for adulthood that we once assumed would transfer automatically must now be deliberately re-taught to an entire generation.
Ben SasseU.S. Senator Ben Sasse is a fifth-generation Nebraskan. He attended public school in Fremont, Neb., and spent his summers working soybean and corn fields. He was recruited to wrestle at Harvard before attending Oxford and later earning a Ph.D. in American history from Yale. Sasse spent five years as president of Midland University back in his hometown. Ben and his wife, Melissa, live in Nebraska but are homeschooling their three children as they commute weekly back and forth to Washington, DC.
Ben Sasse, U.S. Senator for Nebraska, explains how our culture is no longer passing down the skills required for adulthood and how the next generation must be retaught.
The DNA of Adulthood
Bob: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is on a mission. It’s not a political mission—it’s a mission to see our sons and daughters grow up and become functional adults. Here he is—talking about it on CBS television.
Ben: It’s about us, the parents and the grandparents, who are not doing enough to help our kids understand that scar tissue is something to be celebrated. Developing a work ethic—it often stinks and aches and is painful at the time you are going through it, but it makes you tougher. Scar tissue is the basis for future character.
And we’re not having those conversations with our kids, and that’s kind of a unique thing in human history. We’ve raised our kids insulated from work. They’ve grown up sort of being protected from work instead of being taught that there is freedom to be found in finding meaning in work, not avoiding work. Right now, production and consumption are categories that most of them don’t really experience when they’re 12 and 14 and 16—the way most people in human history in the past would have.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 15th.
Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. This is a special edition of FamilyLife Today. We’re live from the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Our guest is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, and we’ll talk about your kids becoming adults. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition—a very special Wednesday edition because we’re not where we usually are. I just need to tell you—I’ve got a little bit of a bone to pick with our guest today. Before we get to that, though, share with everybody where we’re recording these programs; will you?
Dennis: We are at the Museum of the Bible—the grand opening. I’m looking over my left shoulder at the Capitol; and if I look far enough back, way over my left shoulder, I can see the Washington Memorial back there.
Bob: Pretty amazing place—and this museum is spectacular!
Dennis: It is spectacular. We’re celebrating a 430,000-square foot museum that declares the best-selling book in the history of the world.
Bob: Now, can I tell you about what my bone-pick—
Dennis: You know, here’s—our audience knows this, Ben; you don’t know this about Bob—but he finds fresh ways to offend our guests, right off. [Laughter]
Dennis: Now, I know you are not used to people coming at you hard—
Ben: Bob seems like a really nice man.
Bob: Here’s the deal—our guest is very active on Twitter; right?
Bob: Yes; well, so, I was listening in to NPR about six months ago when he was on their program, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! I tweeted that day; and I said, “Senator Ben Sasse is holding his own with Peter Sagal doing a great job on this.” I kept waiting for a like, or a retweet, or something—nothing!—zero! Now, I know I’m no Jonah Goldberg; right? But—
Dennis: I’m looking over his shoulder at his assistant. His assistant is making note of this right now. [Laughter]
Bob: That’s right. I expect a little—
Dennis: I bet the next tweet you make is going to be—he’s going to be on it.
Bob: I expect a little Twitter love!
Ben: I will find a way to love your passion on Twitter. [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, Senator Ben Sasse joins us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome, Ben. I hope you’ll stay.
Ben: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for your ministry; my family has benefitted from it.
You’re right—what a glorious venue! This is a great museum.
Dennis: It really is.
Ben is a fifth generation Nebraskan. He is married to Melissa / three children—was a wrestler at Harvard—didn’t go for the academics—he went to wrestle, because they lowered the standards of how you could get in. [Laughter] He couldn’t make the Cornhusker wrestling team—
Bob: Now, wait! Who is insulting who? [Laughter]
Ben: He’s just telling the truth.
Dennis: I’m just saying what he wrote in his book—so, you know, he declared it.
Ben: I couldn’t play sports for the Huskers or the Razorbacks. So, I had to go someplace where they had really, really—
Dennis: Oh, now, you could have played for the Razorbacks. [Laughter] Now, you’re hitting us / you’re hitting us back. [Laughter]
He went to Oxford and then graduated from Yale with a PhD and has written a book called The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Ben, what prompted you—I know you were a president of a college in the Midwest—was that experience what prompted you to write this book?
Ben: I think more than anything else but two others feed in too. I think we have goofy politics right now, where so much of what’s really important in American life is in culture, upstream from politics. Our politic discussions are pretending you can fix politics with more politics—that’s not true. So, that was a little bit of my motive.
But also, my wife and I are parents—we have three little kids. We look at the world they are coming of age in; and we think about the friends that we deliberate, and pray with, and wrestle with about how to raise our kids. It feels like there is a big desire out there for people to have conversation about how to parent well, and there aren’t a lot of venues for that to happen.
Your program is one of the special exceptions.
Dennis: Well, we’re about to launch a brand-new initiative. In fact, it is the largest initiative in our 41-year history—the parenting initiative. It’s going to be launched with the movie that Bob’s helped create called Like Arrows, which is a movie about parenting. It is accompanied with a training package that’s going to be available, online, next summer called The Art of Parenting. This is an all-out effort—we are going to launch it, initially, in Spanish and Mandarin, as well as, obviously, English.
Dennis: So, we’re hoping for a million parents in the next three years in the top three languages of the world. We’ve got our finger on the same pulse you do. We’ve got to equip parents because the next generation is on the line; don’t you agree?
Ben: I do. It is the most important calling we all have. As believers, we’re parenting and pastoring the first church of the home and trying to catechize and raise our kids to become adults that can live lives of gratitude to God.
Bob: You see the home as more primary to how we do, as a culture, than where you’re serving, vocationally, in the United States Senate; right?
Ben: Exponentially more important; right.
Bob: Unpack that a little bit; because I think a lot of us look around and go: “Power is in Washington. What happens here is what shapes our lives.” But we believe that what happens around the kitchen table shapes things more than what happens in Washington.
Ben: Hear; hear! I mean, people are created in the image of God; and in a fallen world, we need government to restrain evil. There are all sorts of important public policy functions around infrastructure investment, and providing for the common defense, and national security—there are lots of very meaningful callings that happen inside this city. But the first institution of life—not just American life but Adamic life—is going back to the place where two become one and produce eternal souls that are going to serve their neighbors forever and glorify the God who is.
Bob: Is that perspective generally lost in our society today—that family is and must be strong for a civilization to survive?
Ben: I think we have a hollowing out of local community. When the most fundamental institution is the family—it is being thrown about by the same tides that are undermining so much of local community and culture. People understandably worry about that and panic about that; but then, they sort of look to distant powers to solve that problem. The right way to begin solving the problem is to do what you’re called to do and raise your kids properly.
Dennis: Ben, I sat in a White House briefing room 25 years ago. There was presentation after presentation made by the way the federal government was addressing the needs of people around our nation, back then. As I sat there, it started to hit me how many of those programs, policies, and budgets were built around, basically, the dysfunction and the destruction of a family unit.
If we knew how to do marriage and family right, many of those programs—
Dennis: —would go away!
Dennis: We need, today, a fresh return to a moral and spiritual awakening, rooted in the American family, where moms and dads realize—like Bob said—they are the power-brokers. They are raising the next generation that we’re going to turn our factories over to that are going to provide the culture for the next generation for the nation.
Ben: Tomorrow’s workers, and tomorrow’s soldiers, and tomorrow’s neighbors, and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, and tomorrow’s moms and dads are those kids that your listeners are shepherding today.
Charles Murray, I think—over at the American Enterprise Institute—has a great line about what government is for—he says, “Government is supposed to take the difficulty out of doing certain things; but we don’t want the government to take the difficulty out of doing everything; because some things that are difficult create scar tissue, which is the foundation of future character.”
I want the government to take the difficulty out of walking home from a restaurant, late at night, because you shouldn’t be subjected to violence just because you’re walking on a dark street at night. Government should take the danger, and the problem, and the challenge out of walking home, late at night, in terms of violence. But government should not solve the problem of how to deal with the fact that my six-year-old was throwing up in the middle of the night two weeks ago. My wife and I need to go through those struggles at three a.m. together—both, to be co-laborers together. You know, she often believes that I’m not pulling my share [Laughter] at the moment that I say, “Let me take the kid and get him into the shower,”—and somehow, the pile of vomit that is left—we just have to divide up that labor. But it’s also about the fact that our kid sees us there, holding him in that minute of trial. We don’t want government to come in and displace everything that needs to be done by families.
Dennis: Share how your dad and your mom—the images that you have imbedded in your heart and soul and mind of how they did that for you.
Ben: Yes; so, I think the one thing that’s just fundamentally true about the moral architecture that I have, you know, echoing through my head, as a child, is:
“My parents are flawed, flawed sinners,”—like we all are—“but I always knew that they were there for me. There was never a chance that Dad wouldn’t be there when I was in a time of need or that Mom wouldn’t be there when I was in a time of need.” Mom’s touch and Dad’s voice are still prominent in my memory.
Unfortunately, my parents, actually—I’m the product of a divorce. My parents divorced before I was two, and both had remarried by the time I was four and started wrestling through all the hard stuff of—they’re both believers now and have wrestled through a lot of those issues; but I come from a very imperfect, broken background with two families that are loving. I went back and forth, from age four on, between these two houses. They, ultimately, kind of came together and repented to me, as their kid, about some of the stuff that had gone wrong earlier.
Bob: We have a ministry to blended families as a part of FamilyLife.
What you’re pointing out is that, when blended families can come back around and address with their kids—“These were the issues... Here’s what we did... Here’s what was right…; here’s what was wrong... Here’s where we messed up…”—that course correction can be just as powerful in the life of a child as if a family had stayed intact. Kids, who grow up in broken homes, where they see moms and dads working out some of the past difficulties—that can lay a great foundation for them, going forward.
Ben: That opportunity for reconciliation becomes a model of us, recognizing that we have delegated authority from God as we’re raising our kids; but eventually, our kids are not just going to be our dependents and our offspring—they are going to become brothers and sisters before eternity. One of the most fundamental things that my wife and I want to be sure we’re doing right by our kids is we want them to see us repenting to each other and to them.
Dennis: Yes; I’m glad you shared what you shared; because what you described—you said your dad and mom said they would be there for you; and yet, they divorced when you were two.
They weren’t believers / didn’t know Jesus Christ. I understand why that happens—I really do. Still, they were able to provide a redemptive model.
A lot of our listeners—well, I’d say this—all of our listeners come from broken situations. A listener, talking to me, recently, says, “You know, too many of your shows end with a perfect story. Do you realize where we’re living out here?” I thought, “You know, we all are living there.” We share a lot of how things are broken; but it is good to give people hope that, in the midst of brokenness, you can have a situation—like where you bragged on your mom and dad. You said, “You know, do I wish they had stayed together?” Undoubtedly, you do; but nonetheless, in the midst of that brokenness, they were able to communicate something that was very powerful to you that you, now, are passing on to your kids.
Bob: So, if I were to sit in front of you a group of young parents and ask you to tell them what you observe as the gaps—
—the biggest areas where parents today are not connecting the way they should with their kids—could you name the top three, four, five?
Ben: Let me not answer, “Yes,” yet; because I have three, four, five—but I don’t know if I’ve got them ranked/ordered the right way—but let me tell you one of the things I’d start with for them. We live in an extraordinary time with lots and lots of blessings. We live at the richest time and place in all of human history. There are lots of people who are going through bumps, and there have been economic downturns since 2008, et cetera; but we still live at the richest time and place in human history. There is a lot that is wonderful about that. There is a lot that passively happens that lead us to drift and not recognize that our kids don’t have a lot of necessity in their lives.
Throughout almost all of human history—hunter/gatherers; agrarianism from 11,000 years ago until the Industrial Revolution—
—the last 150 years of the factory world and the rise of cities—in all of these contexts, there have always been a bunch of needs that the family had that the kids had to contribute to, as recently as 1870—so, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Most economic historians estimate that children under the age of 14 added more than 30 percent of the economic value to their household.
Ben: Kids that were prepubescent back then—puberty comes a little earlier now—but it used to be sort of a marker at about age 14. More than 30 percent of the value of the household was from kids. Kids have always grown up, throughout most of human history, as they went from 8 to 10 to 12 to 14—not primarily with job choice and specialized career choice—but with doing more of what mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa, and aunts and uncles did to contribute to the community and to the tribe.
What we have now are kids who largely come of age without a distinction in their belly between production and consumption. They just have progression through years and grades in school and lots and lots of consumer experiences outside of school.
That’s actually not good for their souls—to not learn how they develop their potential and their giftedness to serve their neighbor. We’re not helping our kids learn how to be producers.
Bob: They need to de-tassel corn in the summer; right?
Ben: Hear, hear! Foundation of character.
Dennis: —and be bean walkers; right?
Ben: Unfortunately, chemicals have almost made bean walking and weeding big bean fields obsolete—[Laughter]—that’s the first job I ever had as an eight-year-old.
Bob: And there is something about eight-year-olds being bean walkers—there’s some hardship and some struggle that is good for an eight-year-old’s soul.
Ben: Great for a soul. I mean—your parents, or your aunts and uncles, or whoever was managing that farm could look out at the field, afterwards, and know if you did your work; because—those in your audience who haven’t been around crop rotation—usually, beans are following corn by year. So, there’s volunteer corn growing in those fields from last year—just leftover stuff. As it grows, it’s much taller than the beans. You can see as far as the eye can that there is a bunch of corn out there that needs to be hoed out of those fields.
An eight-year-old can add real value; and a mom and a dad can see, from a distance, whether they’ve gotten their work done.
Bob: And if the air conditioning goes out—
Ben: Good! [Laughter]
Bob: —and your kids need to learn that air conditioning is a relatively new luxury; right?
Bob: This happened at your house?
Ben: Yes; it isn’t just production versus consumption—it’s needs versus wants. We want our kids to understand the distinction between their true needs, and you need to meet your needs—right? —we don’t want our kids going to sleep hungry at night, but I don’t want to meet all of my kids’ wants. I want them to learn to limit and defer gratification.
We live in Nebraska, which has huge temperature fluctuations from our winter to our summer. My family and I had been in Colorado for some events the summer before last when I was kind of working on this book. In the middle of the night—our daughters are now 16 and 13, and our boy is 6—our daughters, then, were 14 and 11. They came to my wife and my room in the middle of the night—getting back from Colorado—where our air conditioner had gone out. It was a 75 degree night—I mean, it wasn’t hot.
They came to our room, and they thought they couldn’t conceivably sleep in this house because they needed air conditioning. I thought: “Oh my, we’re doing some stuff wrong here. What you need is for us to turn off the air conditioning for the next month when it hits 100—that’s what you need.”
Dennis: Talk to a listener, who is going to a toy store with their kid or they’re walking through Walmart®, and the kid sees something he wants. You have a way of addressing that with your children that I really like. Explain how you kind of unpack that decision.
Ben: I don’t want this to sound too heavy-handed—but we want to meet all of their needs, and we want them to learn how to help meet their needs and meet their neighbor’s needs; but we want to meet a very small number of their wants, and we want them to understand that category.
Sometimes, if they want something, we’re going to give them the thing that they want; but if they ever begin referring to a want as a need, we promise them, out of love for them: “We’ll never do that.” If my six-year-old boy sees something at the Walmart or the Target®—“I need that,” and the right word was “You want that,”—[Laughter]—
—I get down on my knees so we are eye to eye—and I explain to him that those verbs are different things. He just had bad grammar right there; [Laughter] so there isn’t any chance we’re going to get this thing now that he wanted but he referred to as a need. As it turns out, he’s coming to love those grammar lessons. [Laughter]
Bob: He is learning to curb—he’ll start to say, “I really nee… / nee… / nee…”—[Laughter]—catch; right?
Ben: We have some—he does—and we have some friends who are wonderful; but wanted their kids to be grateful for whatever food is put on the table, because it’s going to meet their needs. They can learn to have appetites that desire these good things, even if it was Brussel sprouts and broccoli, and you didn’t know it the first time. Their kids are never allowed to say they don’t like food. They can refer to certain categories of food as not their favorite [Laughter]: “Brussel sprouts are not my favorite.”
Dennis: I’ve got—some twins, and that’s one of their favorite sayings: “Not my favorite,” “Not my favorite.” [Laughter]
Bob: How do your kids like growing up in your house?
Ben: We do a strange thing. I’m one of five people in the Senate who has never been a politician, and I think I’m the only commuter / family commuter in the Senate.
There are senators who commute, but their families are left behind. We primarily live in Nebraska. The family is out here for a little bit of the year; but when I’m out here, coming out to work Monday through Friday, I often bring a kid with me. They have different responsibilities when they are on the road with Dad versus when they are back home with Mom. Two of the three are usually with her on weekdays, and one travels with me. We kind of homeschool/hybrid school. So, they have chores they have to do here.
Dennis: What are the ages of your kids?
Ben: Sixteen, thirteen, and six.
Bob: And all of these rules and all of these grammar lessons and everything—do you get kids, who roll their eyes and who say: “This is not fair! My friends…”—this and that? Does that go on in the home?
Ben: Oh, absolutely. I mean, to be clear—we are not setting ourselves up as a model with this parenting book at all. We stumble and fall every single day in our house, but we have a theory of what we’re trying to accomplish. Along with lots of other friends, we wanted to sort of deliberate and write this book on: “What is the problem of perpetual adolescence? What is this thing that is developing among us?” because you can’t tackle a problem unless you can name it.
And then, constructively: “What are some habits we want to have our kids form?” This book is an attempt to outline some of those habit-formation constructive opportunities.
Bob: And when you’re raising three kids, whose last name is Sasse—you just set yourself up; didn’t you?—I mean, it’s built into their DNA.
Ben: They are—they are sassy way too often; yes. [Laughter] Unfortunately, the German name is just [German pronunciation] “Sasse” or “Sass”; but they’re regularly corrected for their sassiness.
Dennis: Well, here is what I would say to parents, who are listening to us today: “If you are really interested in being countercultural, in the truest sense of that word, I’d encourage you to get a copy of Ben’s book, The Vanishing American Adult, and just sit and soak in it / read your way through it.” It’s going to affect the way you think. You are going to be—you’re going to find yourself looking at your children through a different set of lenses, because the culture that surrounds them is an entitlement culture.
Their friends are entitled to all of these things, and it’s easy for our kids to be conformed to that same thought process. What Ben’s going to do is challenge your way of thinking, letting you peek behind the curtain into his growing up and into, also, [him] and Melissa as they are raising their brood of three. I think it’s going to benefit you in innumerable ways.
Bob: We have copies of Senator Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult. If you’d like to get a copy, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call, if you’d like to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY. This really is a great adjustment book for moms and dads. It will help you think differently about what you are doing and think about how you can bring some healthy challenge and struggle into your kids’ lives. Again, the title is The Vanishing American Adult:
Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Order the book, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, as we think about the next generation and the challenges our kids are facing today, our goal, here, at FamilyLife Today is to provide husbands and wives and moms and dads with practical biblical help and hope so that we can flourish as families / so that your marriage and your family can thrive. For that to happen, you need to understand God’s design / God’s purposes for marriage and family. You need to understand the impact of the Bible on marriage and family as we’re broadcasting, live, this week from the Museum of the Bible. Our goal, here, is to effectively develop godly marriages and families.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Senator Ben Sasse as we’re broadcasting live this week from the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. We’ll talk more about how we can raise kids who have good problem-solving skills and good critical-thinking skills. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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