I want my children to be responsible American citizens, but what does that mean and how can it be taught?
Does it mean that my children are up on all the current events, and that they understand the history that is fueling the political attitudes today? Does it mean that they take seriously their eventual right to vote, and to make smart decisions when doing so? Does it mean that they learn how our government works and how laws are made? Does it mean that when they stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance in their classrooms, or sign the national anthem at sports events, that they understand and believe the words they recite?
Yes to all this, but also much more. I believe that to be a good citizen of this country, my children must not only understand the history of our nation and how they themselves came to live upon the soil they stand on, but also they must actively participate in working toward a better future for the country in their own ways. Above all, they must develop a love for where they live.
When I talk with my children about this, I can’t leave out how their ancestors fled dour conditions in Ireland, Germany, Bohemia, Scotland, and England to sail across the sea to the unknown to follow dreams for a better life for themselves and their family. Now, 150 years later, long after those pioneers have passed on, we live in a nation where we have the freedoms our ancestors had dreamed of. We owe the foundations of our citizenship to our great-great-great-great grandparents, but also to those who founded this nation, and to those who fought to keep this land.
We can help to honor their efforts through these 10 “citizenship” activities:
1. Learn Your Family History
Where did your ancestors come from? If they immigrated here from elsewhere, why?
My children’s Bohemian ancestors were fleeing from a decree that required all boys, at a certain age, to join the national military for a minimum of 10 years of civil war. If they survived, when they were released from service, they became serfs for the nation’s nobles. America offered an opportunity like no other, and they took it, despite coming to a strange land and unable to speak the language, settling in the middle of a sea of prairie grass, and needing to completely rebuild their lives.
Knowing your family history makes it easy to appreciate the hard choices your ancestors had to make, and how their hope has paid off in how it has rippled down through your family tree.
2. Teach National History Accurately
My children and I live in the U.S. Midwest. Their school readily teaches the history of pioneers coming to the unbroken prairie more than a century ago, braving attacks from Native Americans and making homes from the sod, trying to keep a crop going long enough to earn their right to keep the land offered to them through the U.S. Homestead Act. But the history of the injustice and brutality committed to the Native Americans here is downplayed.
So when I talk with my children about the history of the area where we live, I don’t leave that part out. Sure, there were attacks from Native Americans, but what did the white soldiers do to the Native Americans first? My children need to know the truth of what happened here all that time ago. It’s important for them to develop an understanding of how our country developed, and how they came to be here — on a land that for thousands of years, millions of buffalo had roamed the grassy plains, and now there is nary a bison nor much resemblance of the original landscape.
It’s not all feel-good emotions that come out of this, but the truth develops a deep compassion and appreciation for the whole picture.
The same holds true for understanding hot-topic issues plaguing the media, especially the recent focus on Confederate monuments and whether they should stand given their ties to racial insensitivity. It’s easy to polarize on these issues if we focus on the here-and-now, but compassion unfolds for both sides of the issue when we take time to learn about the history leading up to this growing pain for our nation. It’s important for me to teach my children how to learn to see the whole picture of any issue, whether current or in their history books.
3. Volunteer for Litter Pick-up
Being a good citizen is more than my kids learning about the history of their country, and how their family came to be here — it’s also about participating. An easy way for kids of all ages is to join their family in a volunteer litter pick-up. We live in a rural area, so it’s easy to find a ditch to stretch our legs on. In town, consider walking in a park, school yard, or property of your house of worship. All you need are some plastic bags, and if you’re walking next to a highway, bright-colored clothing to warn motorists to be careful of passersby. Talk to kids about the safety of wherever you are walking, and to leave the handling of broken glass, punctured pop cans, or other questionable items to an adult.
Litter pick-up not only teaches kids about keeping our environment clean, but also how to be a positive member of their community. And that being a good citizen isn’t exclusive of any age.
4. Guide a Comparison Interview
As part of her 4-H Citizenship project, my oldest daughter was to interview two people and then make comparisons between them and herself in finding similarities and differences. She made up a list of questions, ranging from describing their childhoods and family structure, to their hopes for the future to how the nation has changed over time.
This project not only taught my daughter about how to interview another person, but also that while we may see differences in one another, we also have similarities. Even with people who seem very different, that person still has hopes and dreams. Consider having your older child interview you and his or her father, or grandparents, or neighbors. It could be eye-opening for both of you what you discover, and develop an appreciation for the individuals in your community.
5. Make a Citizenship Game
Sometimes, it’s way more fun learning about your country through a game. Make a trivia game using questions-and-answers regarding facts about your nation’s founding, history, and current affairs. Then, pop some popcorn and settle down for family game night. You’ll get time to bond while also learning more about the great nation you call home.
6. Watch a Movie
For older children, generally those ages 12 and older, consider popping in any of these films for a citizenship-themed family movie night:
- “Lincoln” on abolishment of slavery in the U.S.
- “Selma” on the civil rights movement in the U.S.
- “Gandhi” on nonviolent mass action for social change in South Africa
- “He Named Me Malala” on girls’ education rights in the Middle East
- “Such is Life in the Tropics” on the poverty-contributing land issues in Latin America.
It’s important with these movies to allow dialogue through the film when your children have questions, or when you feel there’s an important point to draw out. Depending on his or her temperament, you may be able to introduce these topics to a younger — for example, I watched “Lincoln” and “He Named Me Malala” with my children when they were definitely younger than 12 years old, and found it was okay as long as I skipped certain very graphic scenes and also encouraged a lot of discussion about the themes. I recommend that you watch the films alone first to screen whether you feel they would make an appropriate teaching tool for your child.
7. Read a Book, Out Loud
For about an hour before my children’s bedtime, every night, I read aloud to my kids. I read only chapter books, wanting them to create the illustrations in their mind from the author’s words. Even with older children — my oldest is 11 — this is a very much looked-forward-to part of the day. Even my husband says he enjoys sitting back in his recliner and listening to me read aloud.
I select the books carefully. I want excellent writing quality, because I’m picky that way, a good story line, and I want to introduce themes that broaden their horizons. Right now, we’re reading My Antonia by Willa Cather — written in the 1920s by an author who grew up on the prairie in the pioneer era just about an hour from where we live. As the novel follows a Bohemian family, we are learning the first-hand account of the struggles of pioneers who were likely similar to my children’s Bohemian ancestors, but also about their dreams for more than they could’ve hoped for back in the Old Country.
Here are some books specific to citizenship themes to consider for your own read-aloud time:
- You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? by Jean Fritz, on the women’s U.S. suffrage movement
- Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans, on the U.S. civil rights movement specific to voting
- The Girl-Son by Anne E. Neuberger, on girls’ education rights in Korea
- My Fellow Americans by Alice Provensen, on hundreds of Americans who’ve made contributions toward bettering our lives today
- The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects by Barbara A. Lewis — after reading this, come together as family to do one or more of these service learning projects to benefit your community
8. Display Your Flag Yard Art
A fun way to encourage citizenship in others, particularly passersby walking or driving by your home, is by displaying a flag in your front yard. Take it one step further, and paint your flag on a rectangle of old barn wood or an old wooden pallet, and you’re promoting patriotism with a rather, in-style piece of yard art. It’s also a way to get your budding artist of a child involved in the project, creating a sense of investment in the project more so than simply posting a cloth flag from the store.
9. Encourage Donations
Good financial education is teaching our children how to earn their money, put some in savings, and use what they have left wisely. This not only means making wise purchases, but also giving to those in need. With disasters like Hurricane Harvey, it’s easy to feel motivated to donate a few dollars to help emergency efforts.
But what about victims of a nation’s ongoing economic crisis? For example, the majority of people in the world live in poverty. There are millions of families in South America, on the outskirts of major cities, who live in small, one-room shacks about as big as a coat closet. There are women in Sub-Saharan Africa who have no other way to support their children other than working in brothels. Not only do our children grow in their compassion by learning about these citizens, they also grow in their global citizenship values. And if they want to donate toward a cause to help people near and far, try not to hold them back. The amount doesn’t matter as much as the heart behind it.
This summer, my children joined with their friends in donating a few dollars each to send to an orphanage in India that struggles to put shoes on their children’s feet. Last summer, we purchased school supplies for children on one of the Sioux reservations in South Dakota. And every winter, we join in Operation Christmas Child to send a shoe box full of toys and personal hygiene items to a child living in poverty somewhere in the world, the latest being Mexico.
10. Work a Local Food Pantry
Local food pantries are easy ways to get kids involved in something that is incredibly needed and meaningful to the people served. It is unmistakable the appreciation a recipient feels. Volunteering at the local food pantry may mean helping to organize a donation drive at the local school, stocking food pantry shelves, or working special events to hand out holiday food baskets to recipients. The physical work benefits kids as much as the realization that there are people in the community that need help and that even children can do this help. It really can build a sense of community and pride.