The Vital Role of Challenging Work
About the Guest
Are your chilldren growing up, or are they just getting older? Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska says there's a vital difference, and in many cases that difference can be measured by the thickness of the calluses on your children's hands. Senator Sasse explores the vital role that challenging work plays in the formation of healthy adults in a special live broadcast from the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
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.
Senator Ben Sasse explores the vital role that challenging work plays in the formation of healthy adults.
The Vital Role of Challenging Work
Bob: Are your children maturing each year as they grow up? Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse says a lot of kids aren’t growing up, and it’s a problem. Here he is talking about it with CNN.
Ben: Adolescence is a gift. The idea that you have a kind of greenhouse stage—as you transition from the dependency of early childhood to the independence of adulthood / that greenhouse transition phase of adolescence, where, just because you hit puberty / just because you become biologically an adult—we don’t, now, think you have to be emotionally, morally, financially, school-leaving / household-construction wise—you don’t have to be fully independent just because you’re 13 or 14. That’s a gift!
Perpetual adolescence is a danger. We should be able to distinguish between ten-, and fifteen-, and twenty-, and twenty-five-year-olds; and it’s increasingly difficult to do that.
It’s a very new thing—a bunch of causes. One is—we live at the richest time in the richest nation in all of human history, and so our kids have largely been insulated from necessity.
Bob: This is a special edition of FamilyLife Today for Thursday, November 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re live today at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, which is about to open. Our guest is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. We’re going to talk about helping your kids become adults. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us, again, today, live at the Museum of the Bible, which is opening this weekend. This is going to be exciting for folks who are in the DC area / folks who are traveling here. If you’re making plans to be in our nation’s capital, you need to include a day to go through the Museum of the Bible. This is pretty spectacular.
Dennis: Come early. The lines are going to form, I promise you; because this is no downstream museum. We were told that one of the leaders of the Louvre came here, went through it, and said, “This is the finest, most up-to-date, relevant museum in the world.”
Ben: Yes; wonderful.
Dennis: They typically know a little bit about what they’re talking about over there in France.
Bob: We have a guest joining us today—a special guest, here, in Washington, DC. Do you want to introduce the gym rat?
Dennis: I’d love to do that. [Laughter] Ben Sasse joins us—Senator Ben Sasse joins us on FamilyLife Today. Excuse me, Senator.
Ben: I prefer gym rat.
Bob: Who is it that calls you the gym rat pretty regularly?
Ben: The President and I wrestle on a bunch of different issues. He has taken to calling me the gym rat, and I embrace it. I’m the son of a football and wrestling coach in Nebraska. Gym rat is high praise.
Dennis: So you were right in there in the gym, smelling the sweat, and the dirty jerseys, and all that. You’re used to it.
Ben: I’ve been in there this morning; yes, sir. [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, Senator Sasse is married to Melissa; they have three children. He is a fifth-generation Nebraskan and has written a book called The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.
You’re really talking about some of the observations you’ve made, not only as a dad, but also, professionally, when you were a president of a college. There was a Christmas tree being decorated one time that gave you an insight into this next generation. I just want—before you tell the story, I want to set it up with this—I’ve told this story a couple of times recently, but this is—you’re talking about something that’s on my heart as well.
I was sitting on a plane next to a Chick-Fil-A® operator, and he was one who had been the boss of five of our six kids. We had our kids work for Chick-Fil-A, because they’re off on Sundays—we like that. They taught them the work ethic / they taught them to understand the customer. I asked my friend—I said, “Looking back to our kids and their generation, as employees, and who you have today, what’s the big difference?”
His answer was like he was a sociologist—he said: “Dennis, they don’t know how to solve problems. Fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-olds—they confront something, where they can’t Google it—they don’t know how to press through, and solve problems, and lead their way through initiating. They become passive; they just sit there.”
Your book—that’s really a synthesis of what you talk about in your book. Now, tell about the Christmas tree, because this illustrates it further.
Ben: Yes; that’s a great summary. I was a college president for five years. I became a president at age 37; so I was young—didn’t think of myself as that different in age—
Dennis: You look like you’re 32 right now; so—[Laughter]
Ben: My wife says: “[He] is 45, looks 35, [and] acts 25,”—[Laughter]—I’m trying to grow up a little bit. [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, you don’t want to repeat your rookie year in marriage again—that’s the key.
Ben: That is true.
Dennis: Don’t be a rookie!
Ben: We married right out of undergrad. I love the 23 years of marriage God has blessed us with; but if I could re-live some of them, year one wouldn’t be one I’d pick.
Dennis: Yes; me either. [Laughter]
Ben: So, this Lutheran liberal arts college in Nebraska has a big basketball arena. Every year, as you’re getting to Thanksgiving, they would decorate—it was my first year there—they would decorate this big tree in that kind of atrium as you enter the basketball arena. A number of our students were assigned with decorating the tree. It was—I don’t know—20 to 25 feet tall. These were really good kids.
They were students who had jobs, either in the development and fundraising office or the athletic department; and these were highly-desirable jobs—so these were impressive kids.
Our vice-president for advancement walked through the arena and saw all the kids getting ready to leave, having decorated the tree. The tree was only decorated on like the bottom nine feet, and then there were twelve feet above it that were completely naked! She saw them getting ready to leave; and she said: “Where are you all headed? What’s going on here?” They said, “Well, we used up all the decorations.” She said, “Yes; but you only decorated half the tree.” One of the big kids spoke up and he said, “We didn’t know how to get any decorations any higher.” She paused and said: “Well, was maintenance unresponsive? They refused to bring you a ladder?”
It never really occurred to them that, since the desire would be to have ornaments equally spread over the tree, you probably should just solve that problem.
Bob: Do you think that that problem-solving ability is something that has been cultured out of our kids in our day?
Ben: I think so.
There’s something that we’re doing, right now, that is strange in human history. Historically, there was a distinction between childhood and adulthood, which was about dependent state and, ultimately, an independent state. Over the years, this category of adolescence emerged, which was kind of a special thing. Adolescence is a gift as long as it’s a means to an end. It’s an 18-month to four-year period kind of right around puberty, where we say: “Just because your body went from being a child to being an adult doesn’t mean your frontal lobe is fully formed and that you should quit school, full-time, and work, full-time, and go form a household and procreate. Not everything is aligned with adulthood just because you hit puberty.”
But puberty’s a pretty good marker that you’re transitioning from childhood dependency to adult independence. We should be helping our kids come of age and learn to solve those problems as they become more and more productive to their family, and to their neighborhood, and to their broader community. Right now, we’re just not doing that; our kids, by and large, go through puberty—and then their mid-teen and their late-teen years—and they don’t really have any compulsion and necessity to work. Consumption kind of replaces the production that should lead to those kind of problem-solving skill formations.
Dennis: Ben, in talking about this in your book, you say that parents are abandoning—that’s a strong word—their children to Neverland. What do you mean by that word, “abandonment,” at that point?
Ben: We do more generational segregation than anybody has ever done in human history. Historically, if you were 14 or 16 years old, you would have some interaction with newborns; you’re going to have to help change diapers—and care for people who are truly dependent—and you’re going to care for people, who are in their declining years at 70 or 80, and you’re going to be around workers.
We take our kids and we basically segregate most of their waking hours only with other people that are of the exact same birth year. That’s odd. I don’t want 17-year-olds raising my 17-year-old, or 13-year-olds raising my 13-year-old. I want there to be good teachers, and pastors, and community leaders, and inputs; but I and my wife, as the parents—we have a responsibility for building an environment.
I think we forget that Disney has remade Peter Pan as some sort of utopia, where it’s idyllic to stay stranded in Neverland. The original Peter Pan—it was a dystopia—you didn’t want to be stuck in childhood once you were three, four, five years into having an adult body. The Peter Pan character was actually a murderer; in the book, he kills people; but he has no historical memory of yesterday, and he has no thought of the consequences of tomorrow.
We’re building a world right now, by accident, where it’s hard to tell ten-, and fifteen-, and twenty-, and twenty-five-year-olds apart. That’s not good for them, and it’s not good for our republic.
Dennis: And as a result, we’re allowing adolescence to continue on into the 20s and even the 30s, with a ton of single people, who are now living with their parents as adults.
Ben: The number one address for people, post-college graduation, now is to move back home with Mom and Dad. There’s nothing wrong with an intergenerational household if you’re building it, intentionally—
—young newlyweds having a baby, benefitting from Mom and Grandma and childcare and wisdom—that’s all great stuff if it’s done on purpose.
That’s not what’s happening right now. We have a drift back to the household. Some of the data about 18- to 24-year-old males—spending nearly half of their waking hours playing video games—a huge share of them are spending almost half their waking hours playing video games. That’s not healthy for them; and it’s indicative of a broader problem we, the generation that should be raising them, have.
Dennis: No doubt about it.
Bob: Talk from the perspective of having been a college president. How are kids doing today, thinking critically, about the issues of life?
Ben: I know we’re here, not to talk about politics, but to talk broader—we’re talking about family—but also putting that in a context of broader civic life. There’s polling now that 41 percent of Americans, under age 35, think the First Amendment is dangerous; because you might use your freedom of speech to say something that hurts someone else’s feelings.
Well, hold on; back up a minute.
Actually, the purpose of the American Constitutional system is to create a framework for ordered liberty so that we can argue, and wrestle, and try to persuade people who have souls! Government is about force, and compulsion, and power. Government can’t solve problems about our disagreements about theology, and heaven, and hell. I want a world where we’re free from violence so we can invite people to our churches; so that we can wrestle in the public square; so that we can have people over for dinner; so that we can persuade our kids, as they come of age, about the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Right now, what’s happening is—there’s clearly a movement on college campuses, where we’re thinking that people—that psychology is the master discipline and our children are so fragile that they can’t possibly encounter ideas they don’t already agree with. Well, where I come from, that’s the definition of education. I want to encounter ideas I don’t agree with and find out: “Maybe I’m wrong, and I should be persuaded,” or “Maybe I’m right, and I should try to love my neighbor and persuade them,” but also, just come to understand their argument so that I know that the argument that I’m embracing is one that I’ve scrutinized.
Dennis: You know, there are two points I want to make about that. Number one, as you were talking, it just came to my mind—that Constitution was written in the backdrop of the Judeo-Christian ethic in a biblical viewpoint of life. We’re here, in the Museum of the Bible today—the irony of that. That backdrop was to give us a way of relating to one another with respect, as a fellow image-bearer of God. Even somebody who doesn’t agree with me—around my political beliefs, or theological beliefs, or moral beliefs—I’m still called to love them / I’m still called to have community with them.
But the second thing was—that same Bible also called us to obey God and respect human life. I’m thinking of our culture, right now, and the murder in that Texas church. The only thing that’s going to rid our nation of this kind of foolish evil is a moral and spiritual awakening that begins in the souls of human hearts. I think that has to start in homes—
—moms and dads have to embed their children with the truth of the Bible and call their children to wisdom and not foolishness.
Ben: So well-said. I think—obviously, it is true that God places babies and children under the protective care of a mom and dad, who are modeling all of that. We get to pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, to God the Father Almighty—it’s an amazing paradox in that phrase; right? Our fathers and we, as fathers or as mothers—we’re not almighty—and the Almighty sounds so impersonal and distant; and yet, we have a Father Almighty. We get to anchor our kids in a household and in a structure of love that’s taking seriously the fact that—Dennis, exactly as you said—they are image-bearers of God.
The American founding and the pairing of the Declaration and the Constitution is really a big screaming creedal argument about human dignity. We believe that everybody is created by God with unalienable rights.
Government doesn’t give us rights! God gives us rights by nature, and government is our shared project to protect those rights and to create a public square free from violence so that you can do all those things, which are about the development, and nurture, and the full-flowering of human souls.
Dennis: And as you teach kids to think—thinking from Scripture not just to Scripture—but allowing their lives to be drawn from the words of God, which is what this museum that we’re sitting in is all about. The Museum of the Bible is opening this weekend—Bob and I are here to celebrate that. I know you’ve [Ben] been through it as well. We need to call our nation back to the Scripture. I have a feeling the Green family will be calling our nation to do some things around the Bible, in years to come, that are anchored around this museum—but more importantly—the Bible.
Bob: So why did a college president decide: “I want to run for Senate.
“I want to go to Washington and be a part of an institution that may be less consequential than the university I’m working in”?
Ben: Yes; so I am involved in public life for a limited time, because I have a one-cheer-for-politics view of the world. We can’t have a zero-cheers-for politics, because you’d have anarchy and chaos in a fallen world of all of us descended from endemic sinners. We need to restrain evil; so government has a place. But we have way too many people involved in politics, who have a three-cheers-for-politics view of the world—that it is the central institution of life—it isn’t true!
My identity begins with the fact that I’m a Christian / I’m a redeemed sinner; then, I’m a husband; then, I’m a father; then, I’m an American—then, I head down that list somewhere—and I’m a Husker football addict, [Laughter] and I’m a conservative; and then, somewhere after that, I’m a Republican. But you have to have a sense of how you order your identities. I’m Christian first; and then, I’m a husband and a father; and then, I’m an American; and then, I have this job for a while and I have my policy commitments.
But partisanship is not nearly enough to get out of bed for in the morning. Right now, we have so many families that are hollow / so many local communities that are hollow—so many people that don’t feel a lot of friendship. We have an epidemic of loneliness in this country. People are trying to fill in that tribal need in our soul with political tribes—they’re not satisfying!
Bob: To what extent is government a part of the solution for where we are today in our country?
Ben: Government is a part of solving certain kinds of things; right? We need to maintain the common defense—we have geo-political competitors, and we have cyber-attacks happening on the U.S. Government should be a part of the solution of protecting the unborn and celebrating life.
Government has specific responsibilities; but the most important things in life are a private sector—not just-for-profit entities, like the small business or the company you work for; the entrepreneurship; or the app that you’re building—but not-for-profit entities in your church and the rotary club in your community.
Civil society and voluntary institutions are the center of life. Of those governmental institutions we need, more of them should be done of the local level. Washington [DC] has a really limited number of key responsibilities. When we try to do 5,000 of them, it turns out we don’t do the most important 5 right.
Bob: When I read the Preamble, years ago, I remember it giving pretty specific delineation for what government is supposed to do. It feels like “promote the general welfare” has kind of expanded to mean “anything and everything.”
Ben: Yes; there is a—we have a system that believes in limitless rights for people and very limited government. Right now, we’re acting like the government is the author of our rights and the government has limitless powers. Our founders would be very confused by the current arrangement.
Bob: So you say this is a limited-time job for you?
Ben: I told Nebraskans when I was elected—I won the primary election in the spring of 2014 and the general election in November of 2014—and I told them both election nights: “This is a six-year calling. I will for four-and-a-half years do the best I can to serve them and not spend any time thinking about re-election.” I think the city is way too preoccupied with people’s own careers and their own re-election. Four-and-a-half years into it, my wife and I will sit down and pray and see what future callings we think might be in store for us.
Dennis: I want to go back to something you said, there, about all the different institutions that impact our nation. Ben, 41 years ago, Barbara and I stumbled into starting FamilyLife with two other couples, having no idea—really, not strategically realizing that the family is the strongest creator of culture of any institution in our nation. Forty-one years later, I am more adamant and pound the table more for the moms and dads, who are doing the hard work of earning a living, hammering out a life, and bearing children / raising children in the next generation.
I am more convinced than ever we have to esteem them, value them, [and] cheer them on. You talk about the three cheers—that’s where the three cheers needs to be—for families that are doing the hard work; but they’re doing it in a spiritual way—not just raising kids, who are going to be happy, and healthy, and wealthy—but raising kids, who know right from wrong, and who know how to choose a biblical work ethic, who know how to engage the culture with thorny issues that we don’t have answers for always / we kind of grapple our way through them.
I just want to say to those, who are listening, right now, to us—the moms and dads—you are heading up the institution that allows this democracy to continue. You go to other countries, and democracy doesn’t work; because the family hasn’t been based on the Bible and on Jesus Christ.
I know we’re no longer “a Christian nation” in a sense that we might have been years ago—we’ve gotten too far away from it—but I think now is the day to seize the moment and use these news events that we’re hearing and teach your kids how to think about them from the Bible.
Ben: Yes; and as well, to find a way to praise the moms and dads in your neighborhood, starting locally.
When you said, Dennis, that the family is the primary institution of culture, I just—as a guy who grew up around farming—hear the word, “culture,” and you hear, “agriculture,”— and the environment that you’re creating to nurture those products that are going to come into harvest in the future. Moms and dads are doing that, and it is hard work. It isn’t just our calling to love our own kids; it’s our calling to cheer and encourage those moms and dads, down the street, who are doing great and hard work—and flawed, and fallible, and imperfect work—but to go to them and to cheer them when they’ve been there—
—the voice of love that says to your kid, “You’re accepted, and you’re created in the image of God.”
Dennis: And I have a feeling there are a number of our listeners, right now, saying, “I’d like to buy him a cup of coffee.” [Laughter] Of course, they couldn’t buy you a cup of coffee; can we?—we can’t do that anymore. [Laughter] But anyway, if you’d like to have a cup of coffee with him, get his book, The Vanishing American Adult. You’re going to be sitting down with a very bright writer. He’s going to stimulate you to love and good deeds, because you’re calling us back to our spiritual roots.
Ben Sasse, thanks for joining us on FamilyLife Today.
Ben: It’s been a pleasure to be with you.
Dennis: Fight the good fight where you are, brother, and finish strong.
Ben: Thanks for your ministry.
Bob: One of the things we talk about, a lot, on FamilyLife Today is the need for moms and dads to be intentional and to have the long view in mind—not just be parenting in the moment—but be parenting purposefully and intentionally, with goals in mind and objectives.
And that’s where I think our listeners are going to resonate with the book, The Vanishing American Adult, by Ben Sasse. It’s a book that we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. As Dennis said, we’d encourage you to go online to get a copy of the book. Again, it’s called The Vanishing American Adult. You can order a copy from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FLTODAY to order. The website, again—FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, what we’ve talked about today is how critical / how important it is for families to be central to all that we do in a culture. Here, at FamilyLife, our goal is to effectively develop godly marriages and families; because it’s our strong conviction that godly marriages and families will change the world—
—they’ll do it one home at a time. So, three cheers for families—that’s what we’re all about here. We want to provide you the help and hope necessary to accomplish what you’re trying to do with your kids and in your marriage.
We appreciate those of you who partner with us to make FamilyLife Today possible. We’re a listener-supported ministry, and we depend on your support to be able to continue the work that we’re doing. So, “Thanks,” to those of you who are monthly Legacy Partners; and “Thanks,” to those of you who will, from time to time, call or go online and make a donation in support of this ministry. We’d love to hear from you. In fact, if you’re a regular listener and you’ve never gotten in touch with us, today would be a great day for you to make an online donation at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to donate: 1-800-358-6329—1-800-FL-TODAY.
You can also mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we will be back at the Museum of the Bible. In fact, we’re going to introduce you to the man who had the idea for this museum, back a decade ago. We’ll hear about this amazing place. I hope you can tune in to hear about the Museum of the Bible tomorrow.
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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry.
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