I have a confession: When I was a child, Memorial Day meant two things to me: The beginning of summer and a big BBQ party at my parents’ friend’s house. When I got a little older, I learned that it meant something else: The date after which it is fashionably acceptable to wear white shoes.
I finally realized that the holiday meant more than that when my boyfriend joined the military–after September 11, 2001. By then, I was already in college, which is a little late to be learning about the somber reasons behind this holiday.
As a military spouse, I make this confession with a bit of shame and embarrassment. Sure, I saw the flag decorations and knew that it was a patriotic holiday. But since I didn’t come from a military family or know anyone who was serving, I went through the first half of my life never bothering to think about what we actually memorialize on Memorial Day.
For military families, Memorial Day is more than a BBQ
Unfortunately, I don’t think my experience is unusual for most American civilians. If you don’t live near a military base or know anyone who has died in military service, then Memorial Day is essentially a celebration of summer, backyard parties, swimming pools, and big sales at local stores.
Now that we are a military family, that perspective is unacceptable. Memorial Day means more because we have lost friends in the War on Terror. My husband has seen his buddies killed in combat. I have watched my friends become widows in their 20’s. My husband has memorials to his fallen Marines tattooed on his body and engraved onto metal bracelets. We will carry the wounds with us forever. Every year, Memorial Day gives us an opportunity to pause and appreciate the sacrifices of those who died in military service. We remember their names and honor their lives.
Are children too young to understand Memorial Day?
But what about our children? My kids were not even born when my husband received his Purple Heart and lost his first friend in combat. Later, they were just babies and toddlers when their dad deployed and my best friend’s husband was killed. My children know that Marines fight bad guys and sometimes kill them. . . but they have not yet grasped the full cost and horror of war.
Memorial Day may be the best time to teach children about war. More than any other holiday, it gives us a chance to discuss the reality of war and celebrate our military heroes. Regardless of your political opinions, you should teach your children that service members who died in combat are heroes because they gave the ultimate sacrifice and paid the cost of American freedom. Even young children can understand that and respect that.
Whether you are a civilian or a military family, there are easy ways to teach kids about Memorial Day
Pause. It’s perfectly fine to host a BBQ or a pool party on Memorial Day. Many military families do that, too! But in the midst of the celebration, take a brief moment to pause and think about those who lost their lives while fighting for our country. Invite guests to share names of fallen heroes, say a prayer, or just hold a moment of silence. It is respectful and can make a big impact on kids. They will pick up on the reverence the adults demonstrate. It is also a good way to share family history if an older relative died in the military before the children were born.
Honor the flag. The Stars and Stripes are everywhere on this holiday–not as a patriotic display, but to honor those who have died and come home in flag-draped coffins. Instead of looking up red, white, and blue desserts, take this opportunity to teach your kids about honor and respect. Many military kids know to stand quietly when the flag is raised or lowered during Colors on a military base. If your kids haven’t seen that ceremony, raise a flag at home and have the family stand respectfully. Let them see pictures of a coffin draped with a flag or a flag folded into a triangle and handed to a military family member. Sure, they might have questions, but these are questions worth answering.
Watch the faces on TV. If your kids get their Memorial Day education from TV, they will most likely conclude that it is a holiday for attending parades, eating hamburgers, and buying a mattress, while wearing new summer clothes. You can do better. Some local TV channels take the time during Memorial Day to display the names and faces of those who have died during recent wars. If you can’t find it on TV, watch online at sites like Our Fallen Heroes, which lets you search by name or branch and see tributes from the families of the fallen. Let kids know that these faces are who we honor on Memorial Day.
Help a Veteran. Memorial Day is a great weekend for a family service project. See if your church or local military base needs help with a program that serves military families. Take your children along when you donate time or money to your local VFW. If you live near one of the 148 national veteran cemeteries in America, a Civil War battlefield, or an American cemetery overseas, visit the graves and show respect for these Americans who have become an important part of our history.
Lizann Lightfoot is a writer and Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org