School of soft pats Life

School of soft pats
Life is soft for Americans — till about the age of 18, writes Michael Barone in U.S. News. Kids drift along without being held accountable for their actions. Yet incompetent 18-year-olds turn into “remarkably competent” 30-year-olds. One day, they’re giving you the wrong change at McDonald’s; a few years later, they’re knocking down statues in Baghdad.

. . . from the age of 6 to 18, our kids live mostly in what I call Soft America — the part of our society where there is little competition and accountability. In contrast, most Americans in the 12 years between ages 18 and 30 live mostly in Hard America — the part of American life subject to competition and accountability; the military trains under live fire. Soft America seeks to instill self-esteem. Hard America plays for keeps.

Soft America runs the schools.

Educators ban tag and dodge ball, because some kids lose. Teacher unions seek tenure, higher pay, and lower accountability. Parents’ expectations are often low: Mom and Dad, busy working in Hard America, don’t want to notice that their kids are not learning much. . .

Then at 18, kids encounter Hard America — competitive colleges and universities and community colleges, competitive private-sector employers, training institutions from McDonald’s to the military. Some fall behind and don’t get much of anywhere. Others seek out enclaves of Soft America — soft corners in the civil service or corporate bureaucracies. But most figure out pretty quickly that how they do depends on what they produce. They develop skills that astonish those who knew them at 18. That is what we have been seeing in the American military forces in Iraq.

Most 18-year-olds go to the College of Soft Pats — and a remarkable number manage to flunk out. Then they get fired from that first job that wasn’t good enough anyhow, and maybe from the second job. It takes time to figure out how the world works.

According to a University of Chicago survey, Americans think adulthood starts at 26, once a person has finished school, taken a full-time job and is able to support a family.

Once, it was common for girls to marry at 18; now the survey shows 25.7 is considered the ideal age for marriage, 26.2 the ideal age to start having children. (I’ve always thought a nine-month gap between marriage and child-bearing was ideal, but I’m old-fashioned.)

For categories other than marriage and having children, the average ages were: financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; and being able to support a family, age 24.5.

My daughter is 22.3 years old, with another year of college to go. However, she’s planning to live with a bunch of friends — near home, but not at home — this summer. And, at the rate I’m going, she’ll outearn me this year.

Update: Rebecca, who works at a university, thinks most students are “intent on getting the knowledge, background and credentials necessary for the next stage in their life — med school, law school or a real job in hard America.” The quality of higher education may be strained, but most students know that they’re in the real world. And it’s not just a TV show.

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