Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Raising Tough Kids

I just stumbled across a reference to Senator Ben Sasse's book on childrearing and citizenship, and I was intrigued enough to look it up. From the Times' review:
He might hail from an ancestral line that includes a Lutheran church officer on one side and a manufacturing executive on the other, but he spent his childhood learning the value of “real work,” weeding soybean fields as a 7-year-old and waking before dawn to detassel corn. Any privilege in his upbringing was a temptation to be resisted rather than a boon to be enjoyed. The same now goes for his three children. Last year the Sasses sent their 14-year-old daughter to work on a cattle ranch so that she could experience the “unrelenting encounter with daily necessity,” like learning how to drive a manual tractor and, he proudly recounts, donning shoulder-length gloves to perform rectal exams on pregnant cows.

“At our house we have come to conclude that building and strengthening character will require extreme measures and the intentional pursuit of gritty work experiences,” Sasse writes, and he presents his book as a guide for parents determined not to raise the kind of soft, entitled kids he encountered when he was president of Midland University. He says that the idea for The Vanishing American Adult first came to him several years ago, when a group of Midland students were asked to decorate a 20-foot Christmas tree on campus, and they dressed only “the bottom seven or eight feet … the branches the kids could easily reach.” Sasse was “startled” — “shattered,” even. Seeing this Christmas tree “worried me for the kids.” So began his growing awareness of “a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history.” He noticed that the affliction he observed at Midland could be found in the households of his closest friends and even his own home. His daughters once complained of being unable to sleep because the air-conditioning was broken. Sasse was aghast. “When I was a kid, we had air conditioning in the house … but we never used it.” The fact that his daughters claimed a “need” for air-conditioning left him and his wife with “a heavy sense of failure.”
It's easy enough to mock this sort of thing from an upper middle class white guy, but I certainly don't think it's ridiculous. It is, after all, an old idea that a coddled upbringing is bad for children, and parents have been doing the equivalent of sending rich kids to work on ranches for at least two thousand years. Some kids would probably respond well to it.

On the other hand, if the problem was to build a digital Christmas tree rather than decorate a real one, today's Midland students would probably do a lot better than those of Sasse's generation. Which would be a lot more relevant in our economy. It is simply a fact that the number of "gritty" jobs goes down every year; if you tried to send all Americans kids to get some experience of ranch life there wouldn't be nearly enough work for them all to even get a taste.

So I am ambivalent about this, as I am about most advice on parenting. I am simply not impressed at this point in my life that anything parents do makes as much difference as Ben Sasse seems to think.


Unknown said...

I also don't find Sasse's ideas ridiculous--there's certainly something to the idea that children should learn about their own capacity to solve practical problems and overcome physical hardship. On the other hand, some familiar caveats are in order:

First, we should remember some realities about the toughness of our ancestors, and not idealize them. People were tough because they had to be, not because they were better than we are; a lot of people failed at toughness, and suffered accordingly; and many of the tough failed too. To take the ranching example, I suspect most ranches that succeeded did so as much or more because of luck and the owner's connections, as because of physical toughness. And there was probably a price to pay for toughness in terms of personal orneriness, even cruelty. But the key point is life necessity: for the contemporary upper middle class, a summer on a ranch isn't going to be much more than a decoration, a palliative to a parent's guilt about how they're raising their kids.

Second, and speaking of that last observation, in this kind of upbringing, there's always room to suspect the parent is putting their own narcissism too much at stake in the child's performance. This is certainly the case with the "tiger mother" syndrome, and it sounds like the case with Sasse's disgust at his daughters' inability to sleep without the air conditioner.

Unknown said...

I would add I'm suspicious about that Christmas tree story. Presumably, the whole tree gets decorated every year, and not as part of an unannounced test of the participants' gumption, but because some person is in charge of it who knows where the really tall ladders are, how it was done in the past, etc. What changed? Did the person normally in charge retire? Was Sasse too lazy to find out how it had been done in the past? Did he just get a box of ornaments, grab a bunch of kids, tell them to do it, and then go back inside his presidential office? If so, he got what he deserved for poor leadership and planning.

John said...

I also wondered about the ladder. Was the storeroom locked?

Unknown said...

If this were MIT, the students would have decorated the top of the tree only, and no one would have known how they reached it, or how they got the police car up there.

Anonymous said...

The “unrelenting encounter with daily necessity" of working lacks impact when it's not tied to real necessity; that is, the possibility of going without food, clothing, and shelter. Otherwise it just seems like playing at working, knowing that in the end one gets to go back to one's comfortable home, and there is not going to be 50 years of unrelenting "daily necessity" ahead.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought here before I head out...

In my own life, I have learned the value of *knowing hard work isn't going to kill me.*

It is possible to continue to work in a garden (or rake leaves) even after you have formed a blister. It is possible to walk ten miles. It is possible to do manual labor for a full day.

I don't know about the “unrelenting encounter with daily necessity" having impact or not. But I do know that a child who has "worked a day in their life" knows it is possible--and also knows, to some degree, how hard they might be willing to work to make sure that that never, ever happens again.


Yang Kuo said...

If this were MIT, the students would have decorated the top of the tree only, and no one would have known how they reached it, or how they got the police car up there.

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