Mike and Virginia Fischer didn't train their kids to love America. Instead, they showed their kids America and other countries; the younger Fischers fell in love on their own. Mike was a career military man. On long drives, moving from one stateside duty station to another, the family rarely listened to the radio. Instead, Mike and Virginia talked with their son, Scott, and daughter, Kristina, about the vast panorama rolling by outside the car windows.
"For example, when passing through an Indian reservation, we would talk about the tribe and how Indians came to live on reservations-the bad and the good" said Virginia, 49, of Nezperce, Idaho. "In passing through farm country, we talked about . . . what it might have been like to travel in a wagon across what was taking us just a few days, and why people might want to do that."
The family attended a Civil War reenactment in Missouri, toured a submarine and aircraft carrier in Georgia, and in South Dakota, visited Mount Rushmore. "We did not make a great conscious effort to teach our kids patriotism; we lived it," Virginia said.
Such examples are becoming less common, say Myrna Blyth and Chriss Winston, authors of How to Raise an American: 1776 Fun and Easy Tools, Tips, and Activities to Help Your Child Love This Country a new book on teaching kids patriotism. "Parents want their kids to learn patriotism," said Blyth, former editor of Good Housekeeping, now a columnist for National Review Online. "But many parents believe someone else is teaching it, the way it was when they were growing up, when the schools did."
Today, though, many school systems have dumped pro-American curricula in favor of global villagism. Meanwhile, the culture's loudest voices-mainstream media and the entertainment industry-often transmit a blame-America-first message, Blyth said, making it more difficult than ever for American children to develop a love for country.
It's tough to measure patriotism, since to one person it might mean saluting the flag and to another, exercising his First Amendment right to stage a protest. But attitudinal shifts among young people point to a decline in overall optimism about America and its institutions. For example, a 2005 Time magazine survey found that the attitude of young teens toward America had shifted since the turn of the millennium: Almost half, 46 percent, believe that by the time they are their parents' age, the United States will be a worse place to live than it is now. And, unlike the old days, when lots of children wanted to grow up to be president, 80 percent of kids participating in a 2004 ABC/Weekly Reader survey said they didn't want the job.
"We saw a kind of cynicism and lack of interest, a depression about America among kids who have grown up in very, very good times," Blyth said.
Part of the problem may be history and civics curricula in public schools. Many school systems have jettisoned teaching about the pivotal figures and ideas that shaped America in favor of the "anthropological" approach, which looks at the lives of everyday people. The approach often emphasizes similarities with other cultures rather than highlighting what is unique about America, its institutions, and founding principles.
Some high schools tilt overtly anti-American, using Howard Zinn's dissident history textbook, A People's History of the United States. The book, which has sold more than a million copies since it was first published in 1980, summarizes U.S. history as a struggle of minorities and the working poor against a greedy and ruthless elite. Even noted scholars on the left, such as Georgetown University's Michael Kazin, say the book is "bad history."
"The way history is taught today, students often hear what's wrong about America before they hear what's right," Blyth said.
Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center (MRC) said mainstream media stirs that pot, often dwelling on U.S. failures while minimizing or ignoring successes and individual heroism. For example, a 2006 MRC study of terror-war coverage found that over a five-year period, the major news networks devoted just 52 minutes to stories about winners of top military awards such as the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, but nearly four hours of coverage (in just three weeks' time) to the scandal at Haditha, in which Marines were accused of killing Iraqi civilians.
Since Watergate, Noyes said, reporters seem afflicted by a "Woodward and Bernstein" syndrome, neglecting coverage of earnest public servants while looking under every rock for sexier stories about factions, gamesmanship, and scandal. "If young people are trying to learn about their civic institutions from the news media today," Noyes said, "they are likely to become jaded and cynical."
Meanwhile, Blyth said, celebri-crats like the Dixie Chicks, Michael Moore, and Al Gore also have a big influence on kids' perceptions of America. But nobody, she added, has the influence parents have: "All they have to do is use it-to say we're proud to be Americans, we're proud of our history, and we're part of the American story. It's not hard . . . in fact it's kind of fun."
The bulk of How to Raise an American is devoted to hundreds of tips and ideas parents can use to help their kids appreciate America and its institutions, history, and traditions. Ideas include:
- Volunteering together in a political campaign;
- Taking your kids with you when you vote;
- Observing patriotic holidays with visits to historic sites or fun activities like making a flag cake;
- Sending a letter or care package to a soldier;
- Inviting an immigrant family to Thanksgiving dinner, and asking them why they came to America;
- Participating with your kids in community service projects that help the poor;
- Through arts and crafts, helping your kids explore important American documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation;
- Exposing your kids to great speeches by notable Americans such as Patrick Henry, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King Jr.;
- Visiting cities rich in American history such as Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia (Blyth and Winston list 250 domestic destinations "your kids will love").
The Sluga family of Randolph, N.Y., began by teaching their kids to appreciate military veterans. "My husband is a Vietnam veteran," said Vickie Sluga, 54. "That has been a biggie in our son's life. He always mails his dad a thank-you card on Veterans Day."
The Slugas took their kids to patriotic parades and ceremonies, and now they take their grandkids. "We collect the state quarters," Sluga said. "We study the map of the USA and have explained the meaning of the stars and the colors of the stripes."
In addition to their domestic travels, the Fischer family lived overseas during Mike's military career, setting up housekeeping in places as diverse as Germany, Okinawa, Greece, and Italy. "The kids saw firsthand what it was like to live there and they heard stories of people trying to deal with the health care system, homeschooling issues-illegal in Greece, by the way-transportation, strikes, and taxes," Virginia Fischer said.
The experience helped the four Fischer kids appreciate America, she said: Her daughter, Kristina "specifically told me she hopes to raise any children she has with the same love of country."