When James Lehnhoff graduated from Missouri Baptist University in 2002, he was ready to trade in his 1988 grey Ford Taurus (with a white pinstripe) for better wheels.
"I was 22," he says. "I wanted, you know, a truck or something cool."
"And what do I end up buying? A brand new, grey Ford Taurus with a white pinstripe," he says, laughing. "Just like the old one."
Lehnhoff knew that fulfilling his desire for a "cooler" car wouldn't help him reach his goals. He was dating LuCinda at the time, who would later become his wife and the mother of their four children. At 22, he knew they wanted a family, so Lehnhoff made the decision that seemed most practical to him.
Responsibility was ingrained in his upbringing. His parents both worked — his mother as a registered nurse and his father as a radiology technician. Chores such as vacuuming the floors and helping out at the family farm on the weekends were simply part of his days. They had to be done to get to the fun stuff, but they were also enjoyable in their own right.
Well, maybe not the vacuuming. Lehnhoff laughs as he remembers how he and his sisters would lighten their load. "We would take the head off to put lines on the carpet, to make it look like we vacuumed," he says. "Come on, it didn't need to be done every day."
But, to this day, the lesson sticks. Lehnhoff still splits extra firewood to bring to his parents, for example. Not because he has to, but because he can.
James and LuCinda are trying to teach their children similar priorities. If they want to go to the lake on the weekend, there's a list of chores that need doing first — such as taking care of the family's eight chickens.
They also teach consequences: On a family car trip, one of his daughters had to choose her own consequence for misbehaving. "I'll sit on my hands until the next stop light," she offered.
"Oh, I still love that one," Lehnhoff says. They were on the interstate and he knew they wouldn't come to another stop light for about 20 or 30 miles. "She'll think about that next time."
Lehnhoff smiles when he talks about his wife and children. His voice cracks into laughter when he adds that they have three dogs, too. He takes pride in the work he does to provide for them, even if selling insurance may not be what he wants to do forever. He seems happy. The prospects for his family: promising.
What about young people who aren't as lucky — who don't grow up in loving homes with goals, consequences, direction? When I ask Lehnhoff about this, he laments the loss of American manufacturing jobs that allowed lower-skilled workers to provide well for their families.
"When you have that job spot for somebody in that caliber to go to, because they don't have the higher skill set or the drive, they're fine. They're happy," he says. "If they want to achieve more, they can acquire the skill set to do so."
This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.