Appreciating our freedoms


In July 4, amidst the picnics and fireworks, I sometimes feel the reason for our celebration is drowned out by all the noise. I wonder if my children really understand what we’re celebrating. My older children have studied the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, our founding fathers. They know we’re grilling hot dogs and watching fireworks to mark our independence from England’s rule. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Throughout the media and the malls, however, another message is conveyed. The Fourth of July is advertised like one huge sale, with bargains on everything from refrigerators to paper napkins. Certainly, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of resources and freedoms, yet even on patriotic occasions we seem to take them for granted.

However, if I were to launch into a lecture on the real meaning of Independence Day, my children would tune me out. While it’s my job to help them understand the importance of appreciating our freedoms, I won’t get my point across by subjecting them to “American Citizenship According to Mom.”

One of the best ways I can help my kids understand the responsibilities and sacrifices of citizenship is by telling stories. Sometimes I tell them family stories. I tell them how, as a teenager, I was occasionally given the duty of driving my grandmother, who lived to age 99, to the polls. Granny voted in every election. Indeed, throughout her adult life, she never missed a vote that is, ever since the first year women were permitted to participate. Envisioning my bright, opinionated grandmother as an adult woman prevented from voting made me realize how she must have treasured the opportunity once it was gained. Granny’s example at the polls has prompted me to exercise that privilege at every opportunity. Indeed, my neglecting to vote would be an insult to her memory.

Other family stories include my father’s experiences as an Air Force pilot in World War II. Learning what their grandfather contributed to the war fascinates my children, particularly my oldest son. In addition, my mother tells the story of her father, a family doctor too old to enlist in World War II, who so strongly desired to help the war effort he volunteered his services in Panama City, Florida as a shipyard physician. It was in the midst of this sacrifice that my grandfather, then in his 60s, suffered a heart attack and died. A college student at the time, my mother endured a loss I can’t imagine, yet she tells this story to help me and my children know her father, a generous and courageous man whose death did not prevent him from profoundly influencing his grandchildren’s lives.

Every family has stories illustrating the courage and sacrifice of its members. By hearing these stories, time and again, children develop a deep understanding of their families’ contributions to the nation. Yet because they find the stories so interesting, children aren’t even aware they’re also learning how to become responsible citizens.

Another way my children learn to appreciate freedom is in hearing stories about times in history when human rights have been violated. My children were stunned to learn everyday details of the injustices of the 1950s, my childhood, a time when African Americans could not use the same water fountains as whites. To help them appreciate the Civil Rights movement, I tell my memories of living in the South before desegregation and of how my mother witnessed the Klan’s sinister presence in her small Florida town.

I’ve also talked to them about what South Africa was like during apartheid. I’ve told my older children about China’s policy of forced abortion to control population. They know that in some countries, children their age and younger work as slave labor in unbearable conditions, I once let my older children view the movie “Romero,” the true story of El Salvador’s courageous archbishop, assassinated as he tried to protect his people during the military’s reign of terror. Though I’d prevent them from viewing gratuitous violence, I believe older children need to know the reality of life for those lacking basic human rights.

Indeed, children best understand the blessing of freedom when they realize how precious it is. Surely, to be an American is to be among the most privileged people in the world. Our children must learn that unless they become active citizens dedicated to pursuing justice and liberty for all, “privileged” is just another word for spoiled.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14. In addition to The Miscellany, Hart is a columnist for The Mirror, diocesan newspaper of Springfield Cape Girardeau, Mo.