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How I Explain Kneeling for the National Anthem to My Kids

The controversy misunderstands patriotism, which is actually pretty simple when you think about it.

My kids were always bound to have a complicated relationship with the NFL. They’re growing up in Cleveland Browns country so they’re likely to become fans and, shortly thereafter, disappointed, angry fans. I’d talk them out of it if I could. But that’s not the sort of thing fathers are talking to their kids about in regards to the NFL right now. All the blood is flowing toward what has become a cultural confrontation on the subject of kneeling in protest of civil rights abuses during the national anthem. This ongoing protest, occurring in the shadow of an over-communicative president, is — and I really appreciate this — less difficult to explain to a child than how a team goes through 27 quarterbacks in 16 years. When my kids asked about the commotion before kickoff, here’s what I told them: These men are kneeling because they care about their country.

Given my kids are really young, of course, I need to break it down in a way that even a first grader can understand. The first step? Defining patriotism. That’s easy. Patriotism is simply love and devotion to one’s country. It’s also easy to explain devotion. They know how I feel about them and about my wife. They know I want them to be safe and healthy. This is what a patriot wants for his country.

But what is a country? Is it just a land mass with defined borders and a document that lays out its governance? No, that’s silly. Borders move all the time. A country is defined by the people who make it run. A country is its citizens. Plain and simple. Without them, a country would cease to be. Even if a country has a founding document, that document needs people or it’s meaningless.

Given all that, it’s logical (and, yeah, kids can follow this) that a patriot is someone who is devoted to his or her fellow citizens. This means they should want nothing more than the health and safety of their neighbors.

“Okay, but why are they kneeling?” my kids ask.

Fair question, and also the point where this conversation seems to have gone off the rails. Fortunately, though, the answer is simple. The men kneeling have explained why they’re doing it, to call out racial injustice. There is no reason not to take their word for that.

How do I explain racial injustice to a 7-year-old? Simply. People get hurt because of the color of their skin and the people who are doing the hurting go unpunished. Kids understand “unpunished.” By kneeling, players are saying that they want their fellow citizens to be safe and those people that would hurt them to be held to account. Again, this is very easy to understand. What becomes hard to understand is why anyone would oppose such a non-violent political statement.

I tell my boys that the people who are angry misunderstand something very important, that symbols are less important than people. Symbols represent the country, but people are the country. If my children were under threat in my home, I wouldn’t go protect the address sign.

Happily, I don’t have to explain how the flag and the military came to be conflated or why the NFL recently started paying players for shows of patriotism. That stuff baffles me and a lot of other people, some of whom I see eye-to-eye with politically and others who I don’t.

I also tell my kids that the flag deserves respect, not because of what it is but because of the people it represents. We fly the flag outside our house because it represents the dream of America, the powerful idea that freedom can make a people great. I tell my boys that my decision to fly the flag is not patriotic or truly meaningful. It’s sentimental. I do it because I want to see it there on my house. I tell them that helping and protecting a fellow American is patriotic. They get that.

I could also explain to my sons that rooting for the Patriots to lose is the most American pastime imaginable, but I don’t want to overcomplicate the issue.