9
Oct

a country of 12-year-olds

Matt requires each of the kids to eat a piece of fruit with lunch and for afternoon snacks, so every day this summer Nina grabbed bananas from the wooden blue bowl in our kitchen. I quickly tired of seeing her eat as many as three of them in a day and decided to follow a hunch.

“Nina, are bananas your favorite fruit we have in the house?”

“No.”

“What do you like better?”

“Strawberries are my favorite. Also grapes.”

“We have both of those in the fridge. Why don’t you ever eat them instead?”

“You have to wash those.”

I was right. Nina is a child for whom instant gratification takes a bit too long. Given the choice between a wonderful snack after 90 seconds of work or an okay snack now, she will always choose what’s just okay but immediately available.

Of course, this sweet girl is only 12. She has a super dad to coach her and years in which to grow (and a stepmom who’s buying fewer bananas and more grapes). I’m not too worried about Nina.

Instead, I’m worried about the millions of Americans who act 12 years old—the people too old to be parented and for whom the stakes are much higher than the choice of fruit at lunch.


A few weeks ago I asked my Facebook friends what one adjective they would use to describe the American people. I got dozens of answers ranging from positive (diverse, resilient, adventurous) to not (entitled, bored, over-stimulated). All the answers had some truth to them but no one chose the word I think best sums up Americans: undisciplined.

We could talk about physical health. A recent Gallup poll shared the startling news that a majority of Americans in every state are overweight or obese. You read that right—50% or more of the adults in this country are officially fat, and that’s based on their “self-reported” height and weight, so the actual number is probably higher.

“Leaders at all levels must continue to develop new and better ways of addressing the overweight and obesity problem in the United States,” the report concludes. I disagree—it is not Michael Bloomberg’s job to make sure we don’t drink more than 16 ounces of soda. It is our job to stop drinking sugar water with meals of white bread, processed meat, and chips.

Or there’s the dwindling intellectual life in this country. Reports also estimate the average American spends anywhere from 3 to 5 hours a day watching TV but less than an hour reading. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that almost half of 18-24 year olds never read books for pleasure, and 20% of Americans read at a lower skill level than their job requires.

Connected to our unwillingness to read is our unwillingness to think. I’m at the point where I don’t even care where you land on an issue as long as you’re not just repeating the latest soundbite.

Or there’s our emotional immaturity—why have an uncomfortable conversation confronting a misunderstanding when you can spend emotional energy on a grudge indefinitely?

Or let’s talk about spending: On a national level we all know we need to fix things like social security and the deficit, but no candidate would ever be elected on a platform of dramatically raising taxes, slashing programs and tightening belts.

That’s because individually we’re not much better. Two million American households carry more than $20,000 of credit card debt. (In related news, we also charged $51 billion of fast food to credit cards in a recent year.)

And, for those of us who follow Jesus, there’s also spiritual laziness—I’ll spare you another post about that one.


Why be so concerned annoyed angry about this? You mean besides the fact that our grandchildren will speak Chinese? It’s because in almost every area of life healthy things require effort and time, and when one of us settles for the easy and the immediate it impoverishes all of us.

For instance, I doubt any halfway with-it adult in this country thinks a steady diet of pastries, burgers and pizza is the fast track to health. But it takes discipline to acquire a taste for vegetables and whole grains, to plan meals and grocery shop, to cook at home, and to control portion sizes. Yes, you’ll feel better, spend less, live longer, and make fewer demands on an already-broken health care system……long-term. But it’s easier to be 12 now.

Reading a book takes longer and requires more effort than watching a movie. Consistently disciplining children is harder than ignoring them or giving in. Saving money for a goal is much less fun and much more time-consuming than buying something now. Cleaning is more difficult than dirtying. The payoffs of exercise, budgeting, and controlling your words take much longer to realize than the immediate adrenaline rush of bingeing, spending, and lashing out in anger.


Recently I encouraged the kids to finish their homework and chores before enjoying dessert later in the evening. Nina immediately registered her objections. “She prefers to remember things instead of anticipate them,” Miles said in a moment of precocious wisdom. He’s right; Nina has not yet discovered the benefits of working now and enjoying the rewards later.

We will require Nina to learn this lesson, but human nature and history say most of us won’t change until the status quo becomes unbearable. What will it take for our country to grow up?

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