I am excited to be within driving distance of our nation’s capitol. I have an opportunity to do for my children what my dad wanted to do for my sister and me. Walk together, touch and feel the history of our country. However, I didn’t realize I hadn’t prepared my children as well as my father did for a visit to the symbols that represent such significant moments in our nation’s history.
I’ve been able to visit the historic venues of D.C. several times now, each time with one or two of my children. I want my children to appreciate and honor the history of our country; I want
them to love this country the way I do; and I want them to be proud and to recognize what has been sacrificed and continues to be sacrificed to provide the freedoms we have. I want them to understand those freedoms have been bought and paid for by people like their father and grandfather who have families that love them as much as we love our men.
The opportunity to teach them these things as we walk among the great museums, rest on the Mall or climb the steps to the Lincoln Memorial is precious.
While visiting on one particular trip I realized I have not provided the foundation my father provided for me while growing up. As a veteran, he spoke candidly about war, the ugly side of it, the valor and sacrifice that came from it and why he was willing to make that sacrifice each time he took off in an airplane.
For him, this was not memory lane, but his way of teaching me about our nation’s history and sacrifice. He didn’t speak of politics, budgets or strategies. Instead I learned about great acts of valor, sacrifice and bravery. He taught me about ideals that men and women stood and died for. He spoke of individual service members and their families. He then told me our family belonged to their ranks. We sacrificed much of our childhood as our father flew many post-Vietnam missions. I stood a little taller and it was a little more bearable the next time he left to fly to some unknown location.
After visiting the Vietnam Memorial with one child I realized we have been so caught up in our own life of deployments, separations, long hours and everything that comes with military life, we had not made the time to instill in them the same understanding.
Each generation becomes more emotionally removed from historical events than the one before. The “conflict” in Vietnam is to my children what World War I and II were to me: events I really didn’t want to regurgitate for a test. Until, that is, I began reading about those wars in novels that humanized them for me and exposed me to the sacrifices of our forefathers (and mothers).
As my understanding grew, so did my desire to know my own family’s history and where we fit in throughout the history of our country. I didn’t want to just read about other’s experiences; I wanted to know what my family’s experience had been. I have thought about how I could better teach my children, honor my father, and be as diligent as he was in fostering patriotism and respect for our nation.
Looking back on those trips to D.C., I know I want to do things differently next time. I want to make the actual visit to D.C. more meaningful and use our nation’s capitol to instill pride and patriotism in our country.
Before our next trip to D.C., I am going to decide on a particular museum, monument or other historical site and expose my children to it before we get there. You just can’t see everything in one visit. However, if you don’t have the luxury of multiple trips and have to see as much as you can, pick a few things to really focus on while you’re there.
Walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with, and I am not kidding, 500 other people takes some of the awe out of being there. However, if you invest a little time before your trip, the outcome will not only be more pleasant but will give your junior historians the chance to point out things most other visitors will miss. For instance, if you look up at the frieze that surrounds the top of the Lincoln Memorial, you will notice the names of the 36 states of Lincoln’s presidency connected by intertwining northern laurel and long leaf pine leaves. They are symbols of unity, which is the impression the whole memorial is designed to convey.
HOW do I know this? Sadly this tidbit was not learned on one of my three visits to the memorial, but from visiting the National Park Service’s website and watching their wonderful interactive presentations.
Kids WANT to know stuff. But they, like most of us, don’t want to be lectured to death about things they have no way of relating to. Use virtual tours and other interactive websites, movies and literature before you are standing with a map flapping in the wind with someone saying he has to go to the bathroom… again.
At the World War II Memorial, how much more of an impact will it have standing in front of the 4,048 gold stars if your family already knows that each gold star represents 100 American military deaths? More than 400,000 service members and other military personnel lost their lives or were missing in action.
Why use a star to represent those numbers? When an American went off to fight many families displayed in their window a flag bearing a blue star on a white field with a red border. When the official telegram arrived notifying the family of their loved one’s death, the blue star would be replaced with a gold one revealing that family’s sacrifice. If your kids know this before they get there, you have a better chance of them having a “moment” of understanding.
Also, do a little family history research. Where did their grandparents and great grandparents live during the war eras? My great grandmother left Throckmorton, Texas to go and work in a ship yard in Galveston during World War II. My granddad (her son) was a Merchant Marine. Suddenly World War II means more to me than test questions. It’s just become my history as well. If you have pictures of your family, that’s even better.
Depending on the kids’ ages consider giving them each a camera (disposable or inexpensive) to document their day. You can also give them special “notebooks” to write down facts before they go and any new ones they learn while on site.
When you get home use the pictures and information from the notebooks to publish family vacation journals. There are tons of websites that walk you through the process. What a great gift for other family members, especially those who have served.
I want my children to maybe understand, just a little bit better than they do now, why the elderly couple walking ahead of us through the Vietnam Memorial slowly stops and pauses by a name or two. Why the gray haired man is unable to speak, while his wife walks silently beside him, gently patting his arm.
I want them to know why there are notes and mementos left at that great black wall of names.
We can’t understand the veteran’s experience, but we can teach our children to respect and honor their sacrifice and all those who stood with him throughout our nation’s history in one American military uniform or another.