The other day, my 5-year-old son asked me whether it was World War I or World War II in which America was the bad guy. I began to explain to him that America was not an aggressor in either war but that the onerous financial demands of the victors at Versailles may have made World War II inevitable. Then I stopped myself.
“Oh,” I said. “You’re thinking of Vietnam.”
Like me, my kids are American. Unlike me, they also have Brazilian and French citizenship. America is, however, the only home they know. Lately, in my home and in the home of many Americans, my relationship with the federal government has grown, shall we say, vexed? Already my children, Tony and his younger brother, 4-year-old Tubes, boo and hiss at the mention of the man they call Donaldtwump. He is, as Tubes calls him, a mean owange mownstah. And we — their mother and I — have made clear, in child-appropriate language of course, that we abhor how he has treated women, immigrants (my wife is one), and minorities. But there’s a subtle difference between haphazardly indoctrinating a child with your political beliefs — including beliefs in common decency, science, and the rule of law — and trying to explain that America itself, this big beautiful abstraction, is deeply and systematically flawed.
That’s not an easy lesson for a 4-year-old. Still, I’m not convinced that it isn’t, at this particular moment in time, an age-appropriate one. Asking to understand America without understanding Vietnam or how to recognize a dog whistle is really asking them to pledge allegiance to a series of smartly designed symbols without eyeballing from what the fabric of America is actually woven.
I want to raise patriots, not in the nationalist sense and certainly not in the Tom Brady sense, but in the sense that they love their country. I don’t want them to wave the flag martially, but I do want them to understand the hope it can represent and has represented around the world. But one of the things about hugging is that also means holding accountable. I’ve talked to my kids about Kaepernick, and I’ve talked to my kids about DACA and I’ve reassured them that their mother isn’t in danger and neither are they. But we haven’t really gotten into how modern America was and is built on a system of oppression — of women, of people of color, of the poor — nor how our American exceptionalism has led us into murderous folly abroad, not just in Vietnam, but in Korea, Laos and Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Slavery has come up, but I haven’t yet helped them connect the dots between the raids on West Africa, Confederate pride, and the resurgence of ethnonationalism.
To be in a position to decide whether or not to broach these topics is, itself, a privileged position. Millions of children in this country and abroad have no choice but to confront America’s unseemly side day-by-day. But, already, I’ve had to field questions like, “Which war was America bad in?” and struggled to find satisfying and educational answers. Really, what I want to inculcate is the sense that you can love something and also be furious at it and fight against it. I want them to understand that people who care about their country often have a fraught relationship with it. I want them to get all that and still feel safe, a feeling that even I’m struggling to achieve now despite my general white cisgendered straight maleness.
So I pick and choose. Too early exposure to America’s inequalities asphyxiates embryonic amor patria but too late exposure hardens into dogmatic patriotism. The answer I found, at least for now, is to focus on inspiring stories of resistance. That’s why for instance, Kaepernick is so powerful. He embodies the idea that there is injustice and that there is something to do about it. He’s given away money and made an issue central to public discourse. Do people dislike him? Sure, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong or unpatriotic. It means he’s standing up.
I think that parents on both the left and right want to raise kids that stand up for and to America.
So when Tony asks about when America was bad, I tell him about our stumbling bloody lunacy in Vietnam and Laos — nothing too graphic, of course, because he’s five — but I also mention the protests at home and the courageous actions of men like Muhammed Ali, the greatest fighter in the world, and Nina Simone, the greatest singer in the world, and thousands of other less famous protestors, some of whom were shot and many of whom were beaten. These are not all happy stories, but they are also not ultimately stories about America being bad. They are stories about great Americans challenging bad systems.
Yes, there are bad Americans and there are racists and there are political actors intent on hurting people. We don’t focus on that. Not yet, but we will, for there will be ample opportunity.
Unfortunately, it seems like that, as my boys grow older, there will be more and more occasions for them to ask me why America behaves the way it does. When I don’t know, I’ll tell them that. But, for the most part, I will know. And I will endeavor to be honest about racism and nationalism and the stickiness of privilege. Hopefully I will also be able to reassure them that the resistance will continue — on both sides. I will tell them that there will always be a fight because there are a lot of people who, like them, love this country.