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At some point in my young adulthood, my mother took me aside and told me something brutally honest.

"You've had a pretty soft life," she said.

She didn't say it with malice — she was incapable of that — but she felt the need to point out that my Middle Tennessee childhood hadn't been particularly challenging by 20th-century standards.

This was news to me, since I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in a flood zone with a combat-veteran dad with disabling health conditions and a firm belief in corporal punishment. Money was tight. Church was three times a week.

Like most baby boomers, I felt like I had my share of heartbreaks and headaches.

But I also remember feeling fragile as a young adult. Anxious. Socially inept. Spiritually confused. Lacking in confidence. Maybe "soft" was the right word after all.

As our older son gets ready to pack up for college this summer, I sometimes feel the need to pull him aside to pour out some life lessons. If I'm being honest, I think this is an impulse borne of a desire to counsel my 18-year-old self, not him.

I'm sure he has insecurities and shortcomings, too, like any 18-year-old, but he's also a lot more resilient and worldly than I was when I graduated high school in 1976.

Our son, among other things, is an entrepreneur, athlete and artist. I like that mix.

He outscored me by double digits on the reading and science parts of the ACT. He has a tender heart for pets, young children and people with intellectual challenges. On top of all that, he has a rich spiritual life and close friends who care about him.

Some of his hard-won maturity is just the product of growing up in challenging times.

Today's high school seniors were born in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorists attacks and are graduating from high school in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and period of social upheaval. They've had disruptive life circumstances from Day 1.

Their childhood was also marked by deep economic recessions, two intractable wars and the constant terror of an "active shooter" showing up at their school.

For those of us grounded in 20th-century history, imagine 1918 (the flu pandemic), 1929 (the stock market crash), 1941 (the U.S. entry into WWII), 1968 (maybe the year of peak social unrest) and 1980 (the Iran hostage crisis), all rolled into a ball and tossed into your childhood like a live grenade.

Instead of sitting our kids down to tell them what's what, why don't we set them down and ask them how they did it, how they successfully navigated the first two decades of this wild and woolly century.

Maybe, at the end of the day, we parents should even allow ourselves some credit. Maybe our kids are independent because we gave them space. If they are successful academically, maybe it's partly because we helped them with eighth-grade math. If they are kind and tenderhearted, maybe those are traits they learned at home.

Last Saturday morning, I urged our 18-year-old to register to vote, which he did. It made me feel good to know our family has a new voter in its midst.

Sometimes, I feel like our politics and institutions are broken. Maybe inflamed is the right word.

Maybe we need a new generation of Americans with bright minds and open hearts to lead us into the third decade of the 21st century.

The 20th century had its greatest generation — forged of hardships of the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe the high school Class of 2020 will begin to give the 21st century the great generation it needs and deserves.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo
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