Flags will fly all over the country tomorrow in honor of America’s Declaration of Independence. Families will dine on hot dogs and light bright fireworks on (hopefully) car-free roads. Parades will be had. Light beer will be drunk heavily. And while children will thrill to the day of flag-waving fun, much of the patriotic fervor will be boxed up with the red, white, and blue tableware on July 5th. Then, four months from now, on the second day of November, most Americans will watch from the sidelines as a minority of their fellow citizens exercise their patriotic duty at the poles. Why is this inevitable? Because despite all the mid-summer lip-service paid to American history and civic engagement, many if not most parents fail to teach their kids that patriotism requires action. Patriotism is not, ultimately, a feeling.
When a child’s sole understanding of patriotism is a single hot day of cherry pie and sparklers, that child has been miseducated or done a disservice. Celebrating the Fourth of July outside the context of American democracy is like celebrating New Year’s Eve without a clear understanding of calendars: It’s fun but basically pointless. The July 4 celebration is supposed to be more than an excuse to day drink. It’s supposed to be a reminder of what we owe our forebears and, more pressingly, each other. When parents don’t lean into that message, it tends to get lost.
The word “patriotic” is, after all, an adjective. It can be applied — and has been, liberally — to almost everyone and everything. But patriotism, the noun, must be demonstrated. Patriotism in the absence of action is nothing at all — a contradiction in term. And, no, flag-waving is not involvement. Involvement is involvement. There are no shortcuts with these things. Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.
Again, it’s important for parents, in particular, to remember that only a thin majority of Americans are involved. Just over half of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 Presidential election. And that percentage has been pretty consistent for the last 60 years of presidential elections. That means, for nearly a century, the President of the United States has been determined by just about a third of eligible voters in America. The numbers look even more depressing for midterm elections. This fall, it’s expected that only 40 percent of eligible voters will determine the direction of the United States Congress.
That’s a horrific demonstration of patriotism.
All that said, it’s important to note that patriotism must be personal. No one can determine what constitutes patriotism for another person. A person can be a patriot and feel passionate that unchecked immigration will weaken the country. A person can be a patriot and kneel in protest of racist policing during the national anthem. We can all disagree and still be patriotic. It’s about choosing to disagree in a productive way and for the good of others. Even children who can’t understand policies can understand the idea of selfishness or sharing. Because that’s ultimately what we’re talking about: sharing. In this case, the thing we share is proximity and collective aspiration.
Regardless of where a parent stands on any given issue, they should teach their children that civic engagement and patriotism are, in a sense, synonyms. They should treat July 4 as an office party, then model good behavior by getting back to the task at hand.
It’s great that kids see flag-waving on July 4. It’s awesome that they get to participate in parades and eat pie. Whatever one makes of America’s current political climate, it is a privilege to live in a country where so many have been given so much. Kids should know that and celebrate it. They just need to be reminded, gently, that there’s still work to be done. Lots of it. Democracy is nothing without the demos.
Eventually, as they grow, kids settle on a political affiliation or wander off entirely. Parents can’t really predetermine the former — though you better believe their behavior will inform those decisions — but they can guard against the latter. Reading the Declaration of Independence might be a good place to start. What did the founding fathers want? A voice. There’s not a kid in the world who doesn’t understand that.