America Kind of Sucks Right Now. What Do I Tell My Kids?

When you think America is on the wrong course, don't talk to your kids, show them how to make change happen.

Originally Published: 
a picture of a man stroking his beard beside the words "ask the godfather"

Dear Godfather,

I’m not feeling very patriotic right now. In fact, I’m feeling very freaking unpatriotic right now. The Fourth is going to suck because we can’t be with our families. This is in part because our country is so damned divided that we can’t even agree to wear masks and try to stop something that’s killed over 130,000 people. Don’t even get me started on the systemic injustices built into those governing us — the racism, the economic inequality, the fat cats and their corruption…

So this Fourth, what do I tell my kids? I want to tell them we’re not celebrating because we don’t deserve to celebrate. I’m really tempted to do so.

A Patriot in Pittsburgh

I get it, man. The country is going through some shit. A new (continuing) explosion of COVID-19, widespread protests against racial inequality, racists wearing Aloha shirts who have a hard-on to start Civil War Two, and a largely ineffectual president who seems intent to ignore it all. It’s surprising that when I look down my block all the flags aren’t flying upside down as a signal of our shared national distress. But they’re not. They’re flying right-side up. And there’s one in front of just about every house in the neighborhood. And that’s where we’ll begin.

I know pretty much all the purple on my block flying the flag. Beneath some of those flags, there’s a Black Lives Matter sign. Below my flag, I fly a pride rainbow. Other flags flutter above concrete Virgin Marys, some fly over driveways where big ol’ trucks sporting pro-gun bumper-stickers are parked. Some fly the flag despite not having been born on our shores. But all of these flags hold us under one national symbol. We all own those colors. We all fly them. There is something powerful in that.

Sometimes we get lost in believing that our country is one entity — one barely governable mass of citizenry fighting against itself, getting sick, losing its shine and reputation. That image is fostered by the media which likes to talk about America as a whole. This happen in history class too. Our kids learn about America as a whole too, and for the same reasons. Even Ken Burns can’t tell every individual American’s story. So it can be scary for kids — who can understand themselves as part of the mass — when they hear that America is sick, or in turmoil. And when they see our distress it only makes things worse. After all, we’re the people who are supposed to have our shit together.

But America is made up of individuals. Each one of those individuals is unique, and not likely easily defined by broad generalizations. It takes each unique individual to make our country work. And despite everything, it continues to work thanks to individuals. They choose get up every morning and they put on their masks to keep the grocery stores stocked. They drive to hospitals to care for the ill and the weak. They keep the cars and trains running. They make sure the power is on. They deliver the mail and put out the fires. They entertain and inform.

These individual Americans are our neighbors. They are America and I am terribly, fiercely, desperately proud of them.

So this is my advice to you this 4th of July: celebrate your neighbors with your kids. Help them understand that their community is made of individuals who have made the choice to live together and help one another. The point here is to double down on care. Ask how they’re hanging in. Ask if you can help. Wear a mask to protect their health because that’s what a good American would do.

Kids who see us celebrate America as a collection of individuals choosing to support one another will have a better, healthier view of their country. They may even learn to love America more for all of the individual people that it holds, and grow to hold those who govern us accountable for their care.

Yes, we all, together, are experiencing a unique moment in history. But we will still celebrate this weekend. We can because we have neighbors who will work to make it happen. There is hope in that. There is American goodness and joy in that. Go out and you will find it.

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