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.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.
“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.”
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.