HOW WE CAN TEACH OUR CHILDREN TO LOVE AMERICA by Sara Becker Jones
Recently, I attended a patriotic musical program at my daughter’s elementary school. I was somewhat surprised the program was being held because you don’t often hear about school patriotic programs anymore. But in an old gymnasium one evening children from different backgrounds sang Stars and Stripes Forever, This is My Country, Freedom, and other patriotic songs. They recited from memory the preamble to the Constitution. One boy delivered a long passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, I Have a Dream. They held their hands over their hearts as they sang You’re a Grand Old Flag with a large flag waving in the background. Afterwards, in their classroom, we read essays they had written titled “Why I Love America” where they wrote about freedom and the beauty of the land. There was a hope—an optimism—about America and the promise that she holds for each one of us. Not that America is perfect, but that its founding principles are good and true. As we were leaving one woman said to the teacher, “Thanks for teaching this generation about patriotism, and reminding us adults of it too.”
In his final speech addressing the nation more than thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan left the country with a final “warning”—one that he said had been on his mind for some time. He worried that we were not doing enough to foster an “informed patriotism” in our youth. In his day, the nation’s youth “were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American…. [W]e absorbed,” he said, “almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” But things have changed: “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” He then urged parents to “teach history based not on what’s in fashion, but what’s important…. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Reagan understood that we couldn’t leave the teaching of these important principles solely to the schools. “All great change in America begins at the dinner table,” he said in his address. “So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”
So how can we foster an informed patriotism and love for our country as Reagan urged us to do? Here are a few ideas.
Perhaps the best way to teach our children to love America is to tell stories. Marlene Peterson, compiler of an online library designed to help parents educate the hearts of children through stories said, “Make no mistake, the stories each of us come to accept and believe will form the framework through which we view America. Our stories we take in will either make us love her or despise her, work to save her, or work to bring her down. Therefore, the fight for America and freedom is not determined by who was elected in November, it will be decided by the stories, or lack thereof, stored in the hearts of her citizens.”
Stories can be deeply encouraging and inspiring; they can give us a powerful desire to do good. We feel this when we remember the heroic sacrifice of Nathan Hale. Nathan was a 21-year-old schoolteacher from Connecticut who volunteered to go behind British enemy lines on an extremely dangerous mission for his leader, George Washington. He was subsequently captured and when found carrying incriminating documents, he was ordered to be executed. One officer reported that the final words he uttered as he was about to be hung from a tree were: “My only regret is that I have but one life to live for my country.”
If you feel like you don’t know stories well enough to tell them you can learn right along with your children. Marlene Peterson has compiled numerous volumes of stories from American history that you can access through her online library. The local library also has many good options. For young adults, David McCullough recommends throwing out the textbooks and introducing them to the “great literature of American history” and have them read author such as Francis Parkman, Shelby Foot, Ron Chernow, Gordon Wood, Stacy Schiff, Richard Norton Smith, Harry McPherson and others.
Giving children a framework to understand stories from our history can be helpful. You can watch an award-winning 40-episode education show called “Liberty’s Kids” available on YouTube. It’s an animated historical fiction miniseries that tells the story of the Revolutionary War through the eyes of children living at that time. My daughter loves it and it gives her some context to better understand the stories about the founding of our nation.
Celebrate Holidays by Remembering
Teaching our children to love America should be enjoyable for us and our children. A former teacher, Melissa Park, taught me that one of the simplest ways to teach our children to learn about and love our country is to celebrate the holidays we already have. In addition to parades, food, and decorations, we can celebrate many of our holidays by specifically remembering something historical about that day.
For President’s Day, we could hang a portrait of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington and read a story from one of their lives. Have the children enact a story of Washington or Lincoln. Borrow a book from the library or start a collection like the D’Aulaire children’s biographies and read them on these special days to create a sense of reverence for these men. Sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee!
On Martin Luther King, Jr. day we might listen to one of his speeches and read about others like Harriet Tubman who helped in the fight for equality.
On April eighteenth (not an actual holiday) we could read Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There are beautiful picture books of this poem available. Have the children run up and down the sidewalks yelling, “the Regulars (British) are coming!”
On Memorial Day we might recite The Gettysburg Address or In Flander’s Fields. We could play the Armed Forces Medley and talk about what it means to not allow the dead to have died in vain, and to take the torch from their hands and hold it high.
For Flag Day, fly it! Listen to Stars and Stripes Forever or The Star Spangled Banner. There are spectacular orchestral arrangements and choirs on the internet.
On Juneteenth we might talk to our children about slavery, read picture books and discuss our nation’s constitutional framework that allows us to right our wrongs.
For the Fourth of July, call it Independence Day and watch the movie 1776. Listen to God Bless America and read John Adams’ vision of what the celebrations of Independence Day would look like: “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations” and “solemn acts of Devotion to God Almighty.” Sing America the Beautiful!
For Constitution Day, attend local events, sing out the Bill of Rights (there are many different options online–choose one your family likes), or read a story about a Founding Father.
On Columbus Day you could read Columbus’s journal which was translated into English and tells why and how he did what he did.
For Veteran’s Day, read an inspiring story from World War I or II and sing The National Anthem. Visit a veteran and learn their story.
On Thanksgiving, you might teach your children that William Bradford’s journal was recovered and we have sound documentation on what happened and why the pilgrims came to America. Sing the hymns of the pilgrims. Read Washington’s proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving and teach your children what the holiday was originally established to be thankful for–the Constitution.
As Melissa taught me, with a little effort, you’ll find you are celebrating your country every few months or so, and your children will grow in knowledge and love of country as these little moments layer over the years.
Visit Historic Sites
Visiting historic sites can make history come alive. When John Quincy Adams was only ten years old his father, John Adams, took him on a dangerous winter voyage across the North Atlantic where British cruisers were waiting offshore “to capture somebody like John Adams and take him to London, where most likely he would be hanged as a traitor.” While writing his Pulitzer Prize winning book about John Adams, David McCullough and his son went to that same spot on the North Atlantic. He described the visit as follows: We got out of nice warm car and we had good L.L. Bean down coats on and we walked down across the snow to the water’s edge, and the wind was blowing and it was about 30 degrees, not 20 degrees, and it was bitterly cold. And the sky was lowering, glowering and these big green rollers were coming in, and we tried to imagine what it would have been like to have gotten into that rowboat and gone out to a frigate sitting out on the horizon, to sail to France in the midst of winter.” He then said that visiting that spot with his son was as “memorable” and “moving to [his] spirit as any moment in the whole process of writing the book about John Adams.”
Scotty Evans is a six-year old boy living in New Hampshire who loves learning about American history. When he was only five years old his parents took him to the Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts for the annual Patriots’ Day events. Although his parents and grandparents had often talked to him about American history, going to the battlefields and watching the reenactments stirred his heart and awakened a love of history in him.
History also teaches us how we got to be where we are and what is needed to preserve the things that makes this country unique. To help their children recognize this, the Miller family rarely takes a vacation without visiting a historical site. By the time their children graduate from high school they have been to all fifty states and have visited hundreds of historical sites. Another couple took their teenage grandchildren to tour Washington DC and had each write a short report on the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence to help them better understand the principles underlying our founding documents. If traveling is not possible, one can easily visit numerous historical sites by clicking on Google Earth or by doing a virtual tour through the historical site’s website.
Love What You Teach
Margaret McFarland, a teacher of child psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and beloved advisor to the television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, taught that “attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught.” If a teacher loves what they are teaching then a child can catch that enthusiasm no matter their age. She also taught, “Show them what you love.” When Mr. Rogers wanted to introduce some children to what sculptors do, McFarland said, “I don’t want you to teach sculpting. All I want you to do is to love clay in front of children.” Parents and grandparents can similarly show what they love about America in front of their children and grandchildren. McCullough suggests parents and grandparents should “tak[e] our children to historic sites. Talk to our children about books in biography or history that we have particularly enjoyed, or those characters in history who have meant something to us. We should be talking about what it was like growing up in the olden days. Children, particularly young children, love this.” We can also show our love for America as we exercise our right to vote, pray for our nation’s leaders (even the ones with whom we disagree), fly the flag, give service, and honor veterans.
Finally, we can show our children our love of country as we cultivate a spirit of gratitude. Gratitude for the hand of God in the creation of this nation, for the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, and for the promise of American liberty. John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” Let our spirit of gratitude be one of not just teaching our children about the institutions and principles of this great nation and those who came before us, but of living in such a way that we can more fully live up to those promises and ideals. This is the kind of “informed patriotism” and love of country that I hope to leave with my children.
Id. See also https:www.librariesofhope.com
On Teaching History and History Teaching, Remarks by David McCullough, November 5, 2011
John McCrae, In Flanders Fields, (1915
David McCullough, American Spirit, 116 (2017)
David McCullough, Landon Lecture, February 1, 2002
David McCullough, On Teaching History and History Teaching, Nov. 5 2011.
David McCullough, The American Spirit, at 112.
David McCullough, The American Spirit, at 113.