Once a year, on the last Monday in May, we pause as a nation to honor the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. This day, known as Memorial Day, is marked by parades, ceremonies, and tributes across the United States. Yet, it also prompts an important question: how do we convey the significance of this day to our youth?
Often, children perceive Memorial Day as simply a day off from school or the unofficial beginning of summer, but it offers a crucial teaching moment. It's an opportunity to instill a sense of gratitude, respect, and pride towards the sacrifices made by countless individuals for our freedoms. However, approaching this topic with our children requires a delicate balance.
So, how can we talk about it with our kids? How can we teach them about Memorial Day in a way that fosters a deep sense of gratitude and pride rather than evoking feelings of sorrow or confusion? This guide, crafted from the lens of my own military experiences, is designed to help you navigate those conversations and activities with your children. It aims to transform the day from a casual holiday to a memorable occasion, where children learn about the values of courage, sacrifice, and honor that underpin the foundation of our nation.
Children, with their boundless curiosity and inherent sense of fairness, often have an intuitive understanding of concepts like sacrifice, honor, and gratitude. It's up to us, as adults, to nurture these understandings and help shape their perceptions of Memorial Day.
Approaching this subject with children doesn't have to be a somber affair. In fact, it's more beneficial to frame Memorial Day as a celebration of life—a tribute to the extraordinary men and women who have stood in defense of our freedoms and values.
Children should understand that these heroes were people just like them - they had dreams, passions, families, and favorite ice cream flavors. They loved and were loved. And it was their profound love for their country and its ideals that inspired them to make the ultimate sacrifice.
When explaining the concept of this sacrifice to kids, it's important to use age-appropriate language and metaphors. You might tell them that these soldiers were like superheroes, using their courage and strength to protect others, knowing that they might not come back. But, instead of a cape and superpowers, their strength lay in their brave hearts and commitment to safeguarding their fellow citizens.
Furthermore, remember to use the language of gratitude and pride when discussing the fallen heroes. These brave individuals made a selfless decision to serve their country, and we should remember them with thankfulness for their service and a sense of pride in their dedication to our nation's ideals.
Finally, ensure your child understands that it's okay to feel a range of emotions about Memorial Day. It's natural to feel sad for the soldiers who didn't return, but it's also appropriate to feel proud of their bravery and grateful for their service. Encourage them to express these feelings, whether it's through drawing, writing, or simply talking about it.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, respect, and gratitude. And with thoughtful approach, we can help our children appreciate the importance of this day and understand the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women.
Parents and caretakers play a critical role in shaping children's understanding of the world. This includes their understanding of significant days like Memorial Day. As important as formal education is, it can only provide so much, especially when it comes to personal values, family history, and emotional resonance tied to national events.
Schools are burdened with a vast curriculum and limited time, making it impossible for them to delve deep into the meaning of each holiday. On Memorial Day, they may raise the flag at half-mast, read a poem, or talk about the significance of the day briefly. While these actions are meaningful, they can't replace the dedicated time, personal stories, and value-focused conversation that parents can provide at home.
You, as a parent, are your child's first teacher and most influential leader. Your attitude and actions towards Memorial Day will help shape their perception of this day. Consider this as an opportunity to educate your child about the importance of service, sacrifice, and civic duty.
Taking the time to teach your children about the significance of Memorial Day shows them that it's not just another day off—it's a day of remembrance and gratitude. So, let's step up and be the shining light for our children. Let's show them how to appreciate and understand the importance of this day.
Remember, it's not just about sharing the facts; it's about sharing the emotions, values, and stories connected to the day. Infuse your teaching with a deep sense of gratitude and pride, not sorrow. Showcase a little humor, too, if appropriate, as many servicemen and women often do. Emphasizing these aspects will ensure that your child sees Memorial Day as a day of honor, pride, and gratitude, rather than simply a day off from school.
Your guidance will play an essential role in how your child perceives Memorial Day now and in the future. So, seize the opportunity and lead by example—show them how to remember, honor, and give thanks appropriately on this day.
Engaging children in activities that honor Memorial Day can be a powerful way to communicate its significance. Here are some specific examples that can make the day more meaningful:
(1) Preparation for Visit to a Veteran's Cemetery
Before visiting a veteran's cemetery, research the stories of those buried there. For instance, you might look up Major John Doe, who served valiantly in World War II. You can explain to your child that Major Doe loved baseball and always dreamed of flying planes, which led him to become a pilot in the military. Knowing these personal stories can help your child connect with the lives behind the names they see.
Plan for a brief, yet meaningful visit where you share these stories with your children, helping them to understand the individuals who have sacrificed for their freedoms.
Apart from visiting a veteran's cemetery, there are other engaging activities that can help your child understand the importance of Memorial Day:
(2) Books and Stories: There are numerous children's books available that explain the importance of Memorial Day in an age-appropriate manner. For instance, "The Wall" by Eve Bunting is a touching story about a young boy and his father visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sharing these stories with your child can help them understand why we remember and honor this day.
(3) Thank-You Crafts or Letters: Encourage your child to create thank-you crafts or letters for veterans or active-duty soldiers. For example, they could make a patriotic-themed bracelet or write a letter expressing their appreciation for the service of these brave individuals. This can help them actively express their gratitude and appreciation.
(4) Documentaries and Films: Watching a family-friendly documentary or film about an important historical event can be an engaging way to teach them about the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women. A film like "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" can serve as an entertaining and educational family watch.
(5) Neighborhood Gathering: Hosting or attending a neighborhood gathering to honor the day can help foster a sense of community and shared respect for the significance of Memorial Day. Organize a potluck where each family brings a dish that represents a country where American soldiers have served. This can be a fun and educational way for kids to learn about different cultures while honoring the soldiers who served there.
Involving your child in these activities not only teaches them about the significance of Memorial Day but also allows them to actively participate in honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
One way to make the history of Memorial Day more relatable to your child is to share stories of actual individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice. Stories about soldiers like Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeij, a fellow 2/75 Ranger and the most deployed soldier to be killed in action, offer a human perspective to the narratives of bravery and sacrifice.
Kristoffer was known for his leadership, humility, and for the care he extended towards his fellow soldiers—traits that make his story resonate even more.
I remember a time when Kristoffer, then a sergeant, saved us from a particularly grueling punishment by our team leader. We had messed up, and our leader was intent on "smoking" us—military jargon for a strenuous physical workout as punishment.
Kristoffer decided to "take us on a run" instead. We ended up in the woods near our barracks, where, after an hour of push-ups and burpees, he allowed us to rest. Despite his rank, he spoke with us human to human, taking the time to correct us on weapons systems and engage us in conversation.
It was moments like these that made Kristoffer a cherished comrade. He was the type of leader who led with empathy and understanding, but also with a deep commitment to the Ranger Creed. He served our country valiantly through 14 deployments, a record-breaking feat, before making the ultimate sacrifice in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2011.
Sharing stories like Kristoffer's will give your child a more personal understanding of the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women. It shows them that these heroes were ordinary people with extraordinary commitment to their country and their fellow soldiers.
Take some time on Memorial Day to learn and share these stories. They not only humanize the history but also serve as powerful reminders of the courage, dedication, and selflessness of those who serve.
Community plays a crucial role in reinforcing the importance of Memorial Day to our youth. It allows children to see the collective respect and gratitude we hold for our fallen servicemen and women and fosters a sense of unity and shared values.
To foster community interaction, consider researching and honoring local hometown heroes. Each community has its heroes—people who grew up in our neighborhoods, attended our schools, and who sacrificed their lives for our nation. Sharing their stories helps children understand that these brave individuals come from all walks of life, even their own neighborhoods.
Take, for example, Major Stephen C. Reich. A West Point graduate and the commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Reich was not only a military hero but also a standout baseball player from Washington, Connecticut. He pitched for Team USA in 1993, demonstrating his remarkable athletic prowess alongside his military service. Reich's dedication, humility, and indomitable spirit were evident both on the battlefield and the baseball field.
In 2005, during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, Reich and his team of 16 special operations soldiers were lost during a rescue mission. His story serves as a poignant reminder of the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for their country.
Websites like the Military Times' "Hometown Heroes" and Honor the Fallen, or local history websites often have information about local servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Libraries, town historians, and veteran organizations are also excellent resources for finding information about local heroes.
Involving your community in remembering these heroes can be a rewarding experience. Consider organizing a Memorial Day gathering or a community project that pays tribute to these local heroes. It could be as simple as a moment of silence at a community gathering, a neighborhood clean-up day, or as elaborate as a dedicated memorial in your town park.
By fostering community interaction, we are not only educating our children about the importance of Memorial Day but also strengthening our community bonds, reinforcing shared values, and giving rightful honor to our local heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Memorial Day is more than a day off from work or school. It's a day of honor, gratitude, and remembrance. It's a day where we come together as families, as communities, and as a nation to remember and thank those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
The lessons and activities we share with our children on Memorial Day are vital. They will help shape their understanding and appreciation for the freedom they enjoy and the price paid for it. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that the meaning of Memorial Day isn't lost in the long weekend activities but rather highlighted and honored in a way that is both respectful and inspiring.
We have a duty to remember. A duty to ensure future generations understand the sacrifices that have been made. A duty to honor. So let's do our part and ensure that the stories of our fallen heroes continue to live on in the hearts and minds of our children.
On this Memorial Day, we honor and remember the men lost during Operation Red Wings:
These men, along with every single man and woman who died while serving our country, are who we remember this Memorial Day. We remember them with pride, gratitude, and respect. We honor them by teaching our children about their sacrifices and ensuring their stories are never forgotten.
Dr. Tony Brooks is a former 2nd Ranger Battalion soldier, having served from 2004-2007 in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He participated in Operation Red Wings II and the Battle of Ramadi. He is the author of LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND and a passionate advocate for teaching our youth the importance of honoring our fallen servicemen and women.