I’m going to admit something here that might ruffle a few feathers, but hear me out: When I was a child, the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ kind of freaked me and my classmates out a little bit. I remember that as soon as I got to the line, “We are the dead”, I was out. John McCrae lost me. Not because I wasn’t the kind of kid prepared to honor the sacrifice of brave men and their families in World War I, but because I was the kind of kid who was afraid of being spoken to by dead people. I’m not trying to be funny when I say that – I remember talking to classmates who were kind of creeped out by it all. And remember, this was nearly 40 years before kids started getting obsessed with vampires, zombies and the like. Back then, dead people were scary, regardless of their bravery in life. I suspect that even today, for some kids, that’s still true.
I’ve spent countless hours working with military and veterans’ organizations, including having spent a few Christmas mornings with grieving families, and when I ask them about the things they want from the rest of us, the answers generally fall into a category that I will broad-brush into something I’ll call “respect”. For some, that respect comes in the form of simple fair treatment from elected officials. For others, it just means not having their sacrifice be forgotten.
You’d be surprised how rare that respect can be for some. When she was very young, my daughter picked up a habit from me that I’m proud to say continues for both of us to this day. I first noticed it when she was around 4 on a visit to New York City. She walked up to a cop on the street and said, “Hi. My name is Olivia. I’m 4 years old. Thank you for keeping me safe.” On more than one occasion, I saw cops who reminded me of the Dennis Franz character from “NYPD Blue” suddenly get something in their eye. Then I saw her do the same thing with firefighters, paramedics and soldiers (just like Dad does). Once in a while, you run into the really young ones who just toss out a kind of detached “sure thing” kind of response. But more often than not, when we express gratitude to the people who face danger for a living in the interest of keeping us safe, we look into the faces of people who rarely get that kind of acknowledgement, and of people who just had a stranger completely make their day.
So how do we nudge our kids toward developing those kinds of habits without freaking them out? Best I can offer is some of the things that got us there. Your mileage may vary, but there were a few bits of it that stuck with me.
For Kids, It’s Not About Death
Death is, of course, the ultimate sacrifice. And every time soldiers get out of bed, most of them realize they may be starting their last day. That kind of bravery deserves our respect, for sure, but it might be a little much for small children to wrap their heads around. The first time my daughter saw me go out of my way to extend gratitude to a soldier was, oddly enough, at a Chuck E Cheese. I saw a man in full camo, there for a kids’ birthday party. I walked up and thanked him for his service, and learned that he had just returned from Iraq. When my daughter asked why I did that, I told her that the man had just come back from war. She had a rough concept of what war was, because it sometimes came up on cartoon shows we’d watched. But I told her that I wanted to thank him because – and this was all I said – that war is very, very dangerous, and that man had volunteered to go fight in a war so he could keep people safe. When she asked why it’s dangerous, I simply said that sometimes, people go to fight in a war and they don’t ever come home again. In that moment, looking at the soldier with his kids, the concept of never coming home again was all she needed to know.
Gratitude Takes Very Little Effort
This is a lesson that can serve us all well, and it seems to me that it’s the kind of thing that can take root very easily. When you consider that thanking a first responder or a veteran for their service (or even a widow or widower for their sacrifice) is an incredibly simple thing to do, you quickly realize that it is the very least you can do. The first time you walk up to a soldier on the street and say a simple, “Thank you for your service”, that moment you offer a handshake might be one of the most awkward moments ever. I’d wager it’s far less difficult than the things they go through as part of their training, and the indescribable danger they face in combat. For me, it’s the same with first responders as well. Don’t just thank a firefighter when they put out a fire in your house, thank them when you get the chance for taking the job at all. Once you’ve done it a few times, it gets contagious. You find yourself thanking the person who holds the door for you at the mall, the person who cleans your table at the restaurant, even the person who lets you jump ahead at the on-ramp. The earlier we get those habits into our children, the more firmly those roots take hold. Get them started before they’ve got a concept of “awkward”, and you’ve got a child whose life is centered around gratitude, community and respect.
Take the Politics Out
I’ve had this debate hundreds of times over the years, and I’ll offer a quick summary here. Extending honor and respect to people in the military doesn’t make you a person who loves war. I talked to countless people who went out of their way to say “I support the troops, but I don’t support the war.” If you really want to support the troops and honor the fallen, leave the entire second half of that sentence out. Honoring them isn’t about you and your opinions, it’s about them and their sacrifice. Talk to your children about your feelings about war, of course. But remember that they might lack some of the nuance that your adult brain is capable of, and that as far as they’re concerned, someone who does something you disapprove of is probably a bad person. Is every soldier a saint? No, the same way that not every doctor, stock broker or teacher is a saint. But for our kids, there’s massive value in showing them that there are people out there who put others ahead of themselves; and those people are worthy of our respect.
Enjoy Remembrance Day. And I say that in the truest sense of the word. Enjoy it by finding men and women in uniform, or families of the fallen or those currently serving, and say “thank you”. Try it once. And you’ll understand why I say “enjoy”. The good feeling they get from knowing their sacrifices aren’t for nothing, will spill over to you, and you’ll feel good all day. And once you’ve watched your kids do it? Best. Feeling. Ever.