What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers, Part 2

A bill introduced in the U.S. House last month would ban the flavoring of any “tobacco product” except, strangely, cigarettes.” The targets are vaping devices (vapes, e-cigarettes), but also cigars and pipe tobacco. The Food and Drug Administration deems vaping devices “tobacco products” even though they contain no tobacco. Introduced without sponsors by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the bill would allow an exception for some vaping products, but it is one that would be all but impossible to qualify for.

The rationalization for the prohibition is that flavoring attracts underage consumers to the products. Yet this seems implausible because it suggests that without flavoring teenagers would be uninterested in e-cigarettes (not to mention conventional cigarettes). Yet kids have long been attracted to conventional unflavored cigarettes. (And unflavored marijuana has no troubling winning favor among the young.) After all, fruit, mint, and other flavors are readily available in unrestricted products like hard candy, chewing gum, and soft drinks. So if underage consumers want those flavors, why don’t they stick with products they can legally buy? Clearly, the attraction to e-cigarettes (and conventional cigarettes) is something other than flavors — the “coolness,” or maturity, factor perhaps.

DeLauro’s bill betrays a fundamental puritanism, which underlies all prohibitionism: since nicotine is a substance that provides pleasure and some people therefore use it habitually, it must be stamped out and its consumers, producers, and merchants demonized. (Human beings have long affirmed themselves by demonizing others and their preferences.) As H. L. Mencken told us: puritanism is the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

At any rate, DeLauro’s bill is redundant because the FDA under Trump appointee and putative deregulator Scott Gottlieb is already moving in that direction. (Her bill likely excludes conventional cigarettes because the FDA is already stepping up the restrictions on them.) Indeed, Gottlieb now threatens to yank vapes from the market and subject them to a lengthy and expensive regulatory review if “the youth use continues to rise.” (The anti-vaping hysteria is just getting started.) According to NBC News, Gottlieb told a meeting: “If … we see significant increases in [youth] use in 2019, on top of the dramatic rise in 2018, the entire category will face an existential threat. It will be game over for these products until they can successfully traverse the regulatory process.” (Emphasis added.) He reportedly accused the e-cigarette makers of marketing to young people. Yet when those makers label their products as for adults only, they are accused of enticing children. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Welcome to America, the land (as Mencken put it) of the “theoretically free.”

In 2009 Congress and Barack Obama gave a virtual blank check to the secretary of health and human services to regulate “tobacco products” through the FDA and a soon-to-be-created Center for Tobacco Products. The result over the last few years has been a dizzying cascade of oppressive rules governing manufacturing, retailing, labeling, and other aspects of the business of producing and selling combustible and smokeless tobacco and nicotine-delivery products that don’t contain or are not made out of tobacco, such as e-cigarettes and pipes.

Among other things, the FDA has begun to move toward mandating that the nicotine in cigarettes be reduced to so-called “non-addictive” levels, the consequences of which would surely spill onto pipe and cigar smokers. (Nicotine users have always found ways to get the amount they want regardless of government restrictions.) The FDA’s most recent decree bans most flavored vape “e-juices” from general retail stores (as opposed to age-restricted vape shops), and prohibition of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are also in the works. Meanwhile, other tobacco products, such as pipe tobacco, that entered the market on or after an arbitrary date in the past (in 2016 or 2018, depending on the product) are being deemed “new” and made subject to costly and time-consuming FDA testing. Even a retailer’s blending of two long-available pipe tobaccos is deemed to be “new” and subject to testing. (Deadlines for submission for testing are in 2021 and 2022, depending on the product. The FDA’s procedures have yet to be worked out.)

The upshot is that adults are being harassed as they go about their peaceful consumption of combustible and smokeless tobacco and nontobacco nicotine products, which human beings have done in one way or another from time immemorial. (While some people find it easy to habituate themselves to nicotine, unlike inhaled tobacco smoke, it is not hazardous to health.) As noted, many of these bureaucratic violations of liberty are defended in the name of protecting children; however, we can address that issue without the blunt instrument of the state, and as mentioned, many intrusions have nothing to do with children. How many kids are shelling out for premium cigars, pipe tobacco, and briar pipes?

Moreover, regulations that appear aimed at children, especially those regarding vaping, may discourage cigarette smokers from switching to that safer form of nicotine consumption. The warning that vaping is “not a safe alternative to cigarettes” almost sounds like an argument for sticking with cigarettes, although vaping is safer than inhaling cigarette smoke. (The reported rise in teen vaping has coincided with a drop in teen cigarette smoking.)

The intrusions simply hassle adults and make what they want to consume less abundant and more expensive. And they do something else: they entice teens, who will always be drawn to forbidden fruit. (What would Huck Finn be saying?)

Congress should repeal the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) of 2009, which empowers the FDA to regulate “tobacco products” and to define what a tobacco product is. How can anyone continue to believe that the U.S. government is constitutionally limited when Congress and the president can authorize an executive department and a regulatory agency to define their own powers over peaceful, consensual conduct?

Make no mistake about it: the assault on manufacturers and retailers is ultimately an attack on consumers who indulge in what other people believe are vices. (See Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty.) This is shameful in a society that fancies itself free.

To be continued…

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Cassowary

Nobody asked but …

On the way to work this morning, I saw a cassowary.  Right or wrong, I saw a cassowary (two of them, in fact).  Let me be quick to point out that casuarius casuarius does not occur by Darwinian nature in the Bluegrass of Kentucky.  But it does occur by the workings of the law of unforeseen consequences, and this too is a part of nature.  To help you crack this mystery, I will add that a very nice family maintains a farm on a ridge out my way, and on that farm they maintain many exotic animals, including the cassowary, along with wallaby, coatimundi, bison, dromedary, llama, alpaca, palomino mules, Texas longhorns, and so forth.  That all of these have arrived here on my drive to work, may be an oddity, but it is by nature.

Other oddities are Brexit, the current POTUS, teenagers, the Canadian government’s alleged policy of sterilizing indigenous women, The Caravan, reality television, bonfires, The Constitution, and further so forth.  These are oddities but also natural occurrences.  None of them arrived by magic.  Unicorns, leprechauns, and Disney princesses are figments of the imagination, but the people who believe in them are both natural and odd.

Look around you.  Anything can happen (including pictures of deities in pizza) and usually does.  Many of the things that happen are recognized to be good.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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Against Veneration

Ye venerate me; but what if your veneration should some day collapse? Take heed lest a statue crush you!

Ye say, ye believe in Zarathustra? But of what account is Zarathustra! Ye are my believers: but of what account are all believers!

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I have close friends who venerate Adam Smith, John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, John Maynard Keynes, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Paul Samuelson, Deirdre McCloskey, Elinor Ostrom, Hannah Arendt, Alexis de Tocqueville, David Hume, Murray Rothbard, Paul Krugman, or Thomas Jefferson.

“Venerate.”  I choose the word with care.  “Venerates X” means far more than “Admires X’s intellectual achievements.”  It means, rather, that you (a) ascribe superlative and wide-ranging intellectual insight to X, and (b) energetically lobby to get X ample credit for their supposedly remarkable intellectual contributions.  Thus, people who venerate Hayek don’t merely say, “Hayek made several fruitful points.”  People who venerate Hayek maintain that Hayek’s work is packed with wisdom – and persistently advertise Hayek’s genius to the world.

This veneration of the Great Names mystifies me on two levels.

First, the standard idols just seem overrated.  I’ve read everyone on the preceding list.  When I was a teenager, I venerated a few of them myself.  The more I learned, however, the less impressive even my favorites seemed.  At this point in my life, not a one fills me with awe.  Sure, they’re all smart.  Sure, they all made interesting observations.  But once you set aside the halo effect, each and every one is, in his own way, a massive let-down.

How so?  Some of the Great Names are comically dogmatic.  Others make frequent glaring logical errors.  Some love hyperbole.  Others mask banalities in pompous academic prose.  Some were great for their time.  Others have been overrated from the get-go.  Some simply lived before events and discoveries that seriously discredit their life’s work.  Others manage to be equally oblivious despite an epistemically advantageous birthyear.  Call me hard to please, but after a thorough read, I don’t see why any of the canonical intellectual idols deserve my veneration.  Or anyone’s.

Second, lobbying on the idols’ behalf seems overrated as well.  Suppose I’m wrong about one of the Great Names.  Maybe Adam Smith really is the cat’s meow.  I still have to ask: What’s the point of loudly and repeatedly declaring his awesomeness?  I can understand why you would want to publicize Smith’s great arguments.  Great arguments are what takes rational minds from error to truth.  But habitually talking about the man himself seems like a colossal distraction.

I guess you could claim that today’s Adam Smith worship motivates the Smiths of the future: “O Promising Grad Student, if you become as great as Smith was, one day you too will have acolytes who devote their careers to singing your praises.”  But it’s hard to believe that this has more than a tiny effect on current thinkers’ intellectual effort.  Indeed, if history’s Great Names get too much praise, it’s easy to imagine current thinkers reducing their effort in abject frustration: “I’ll never match the glorious achievements of Adam Smith, so why bother?”

Many will assume that I’m trying to smash existing idols to clear the way for my personal favorites.  There’s a kernel of truth here.  When I hear “superlative and wide-ranging intellectual insight,” the people who come to my mind are none of the Great Names, but Phil Tetlock and Mike Huemer.

Yet in all candor, I don’t venerate them either.  Venerate the living?  That’s cultish!  Kidding aside, I’m confident Tetlock and Huemer are glad not to be venerated.  Truly great thinkers cherish meritocratic intellectual exchange, not Odes to Their Own Greatness.

But, you may ask, where’s the harm in veneration?  Above all else, veneration taxes the search for truth.  Once you idolize a thinker, it’s hard to calmly weigh his arguments.  Perverse nepotism sets in: “Take heed lest a statue crush you!”  Don’t believe me?  Imagine if I randomly inserted some trite words into the works of whatever thinker you most venerate.   Wouldn’t you be sorely tempted, by hook or by crook, to spin my forgery as yet another expression of your idol’s genius?

Finally, you could insist: Veneration may be objectively silly, but it brings meaning to many lives.  A tempting plea, but what of the opportunity cost?  We could take the brainpower we squander on mortal thinkers, and spend it instead on immortal arguments.  Just picture it.  We don’t have to settle for meaning alone.  We can have truth as well.

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Makes for Very Poor Relationships

I have a general philosophy about human interaction.

I am often willing to put in the effort to make a deeper, more interesting or closer relationship with someone (if I like them). This applies to friends, relationships, and family. However, after I put out the initiative, I am not going to invest more in the relationship than the other person. I dislike how that feels when I care more than the other person, and I believe it makes for very poor relationships.

I think this idea is somewhat unobjectionable to most people. However, I also apply this to kids, and I think this is where people would find this to be distasteful and frustrating to think about.

I think one huge problem adults have with interacting with kids (teenagers especially) nowadays is that they try to make their relationship some idealized thing. They like to be active in the kids lives, show interest in them, have a certain degree of closeness, and actualize their investment into the relationship they have wanted. Often, the kids don’t want this.

I was talking to a couple several months back who was frustrated that their teenage daughter often expresses frustration and embarrassment of them. I told them that what I would do is pull back, don’t be as involved and let the daughter come to them. Not as a passive-aggressive stunt, but just as someone who respects boundaries and expects people to value their relationship. They hated this idea … they wanted to be involved in her activities, and share an idealized parenting experience with her.

If my kids come off irritated, frustrated or annoyed by me … I will take that as a sign to back off, just like I do with everyone else. I will back off until we find a point where we both value the relationship relatively equally. This is so much harder with our kids because we have so much invested in them … however, you will probably maximize the value of the relationship on both ends by taking this approach.

Also, you should have planned this out before and had more kids. If you have 16 kids, they won’t likely feel like you are overly invested. That’s my plan.

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