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The things they carry

Identity is too heavy a weight for children to bear alone

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It was my first children’s book festival, shortly after the publication of my first children’s book. I wasn’t presenting, just attending, to see what kind of occasions my new life would include. One happy discovery was a spirit of welcome and camaraderie among other authors who gladly included me in their conversations at lunchtime. At least half, it seemed, had been teachers or somehow involved in education, and if not, they’d had plenty of interactions with kids during school visits. (Another ­discovery: Children’s authors make at least half their income in school presentations, so I would have to get up to speed on that.)

As the subject of “kids today” came up, one of our group said he was surprised at the lack of ambition among the students he met. “I try to encourage them to dream,” he said. “They can be whatever they want to be.”

Nods around the table, while I was thinking, Really? Do they know what they want to be? Do they even know who they are yet?

Our youth-oriented culture tends to idealize children as complete and unspoiled, lacking only the proper encouragement. Sometimes the message is explicit, ­especially when it’s aimed at marginalized groups: You are perfect, just as you are. But who really believes that? Don’t we all know that children are works in progress, or why bother to educate them?

In fact, much of educational theory is bent toward shaping a particular kind of citizen with a particular (leftward) worldview. And it’s working, sort of. But instead of bright, confident young people with clear ambitions and goals, teens are increasingly anxious and pessimistic. More and more research indicates this, including a fascinating study reported in Social Science & Medicine—Mental Health. The study used cross-­sectional data of 87,138 high school seniors from 2005 to 2018, marking a significant decline in well-being over that period. The decline registered across the political spectrum, but was decidedly higher among liberal students.

I’ve referenced the study before, but there are so many facets it’s worth revisiting. Why are liberal teens (especially girls) so depressed? And not just in the United States—a deep dive into the SSM-MH study, and others like it, as reported in American Affairs, found the same pattern in 87 out of 95 countries: Conservatives were happier than liberals.

Why? American Affairs lists several possible conservative advantages, including faith, patriotism, family ­stability, resilience in hardship, and more. But here’s the one that struck me, particularly in regard to young people: “In contexts where traditional forms of life, traditional social roles, and social structures are undermined, the acts of self-presentation, self-management, and self-­creation become much more demanding and fraught.” When kids are seen as being rather than becoming, the “act of self-creation” is both more urgent and less thoughtful. Identity is a decision for you and you alone—nobody can tell you who you are. Or who you aren’t. In fact, if you decide you’re a boy in a girl’s body or a permanent victim of an oppressed group, any challenge to that position is an assault on your very being.

Idols are heavy, whether gold or oak or personal identities. In these last days we’ve devised the heaviest of all: the burden of self. To tell adolescents “You are enough,” “You are perfect,” “Follow your dream and live your truth” is to weigh them down with expectations they can’t begin to meet.

“These things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts,” says the Lord to Israel of their idolatrous ways. “Listen to me, O house of Jacob: … even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:1, 3-4).

Identity is a burden even grown-ups were not made to bear alone. No one entirely knows himself; it’s the Lord who knows, and the Lord who carries. May our overburdened youth find Him before it’s too late.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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