Sparklers and Snare Drums: Telling America’s Story to Our Children This Summer

. June 30, 2018.
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I don’t have a summer birthday. I have a spring birthday, but growing up I always envied those with summer birthdays. Their birthday parties could be at a pool or at a baseball game, the days were longer and the food was better. Summer birthdays are the best. One of my daughters has a July birthday and it’s so sweet to see her enjoy those moments. Running around, playing with dirty feet, and eating popsicles with all of her friends. She loves having a birthday in July.

A few months ago we were talking about her upcoming birthday, which wasn’t that “upcoming” because it was so far away, but when you’re 5 looking at 6 it is never too soon to plan, and her big sister took the opportunity to interrupt and ask about the 4th of July. “What is the 4th of July about anyway, Dad?” Of course, I told my oldest to let her little sister finish her list, but I also (happily) took advantage of this opportunity to change the subject.

Teaching stories

As we talked about the 4th of July I found myself thinking about origin stories and their power to inform all that comes after. Instead of talking about hot dogs and sparklers we talked about how this experiment called America began in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I love different aspects of the 4th of July. I mean, it’s just a fact: the 4th of July cannot start until you hear those first snare hits in Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful.” This year we’ll watch “The Sandlot” again and consume more hot dogs than any one person should. But in the same way a cupcake isn’t enough to understand the birthday of a child and all that comes with it, fireworks and “patriotic music” just isn’t enough to encapsulate all that the 4th of July means.

This year let me propose two ideas to help us begin sharing American Stories with our children during the festivities of the 4th of July.

Tell the whole story

It is so easy to only tell the palatable portion of the story of our founding. But we owe it to our children to explain as much of the story as we can. The truth is, we know more about America’s founding than a few boats and stories of pilgrims. We also know about the way we took this land from people who were living here before us. We know the brutal ways in which we claimed this land for our own and dispensed with those who were here first. We need to have more confidence in our children’s ability to comprehend difficult topics that aren’t easy to discuss. The brilliant and wise Bryan Stevenson says, “We don’t really like to talk about our history, and because of that we haven’t really understood what it means to do the things we have done historically.”

Write the next chapter together

The more we can talk about the whole of our American story with our children the more we can begin to write a new beautiful chapter together. When we face up to the negative elements of the founding of our nation, we are naturally drawn to what makes this country wonderful. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are worthy, necessary things to talk about with our children. Reading the morning news reminds us that “liberty and justice for all” is an urgent lesson to teach our children today. But we have to tell the whole story.

Our children, these little citizens, are heirs to this American story. So, the next time you hand off that fiery sparkler or apply an American flag (fake) tattoo to their cheek remember to tell them the whole story. Because, when we own the whole story of America’s yesterday, we can enlist these little citizens to help write a better story for tomorrow.