THE PATRIOTISM GAP
“We want to make our children feel that the mere fact of being Americans makes them better off. . . . This is not to blind us at all to our own shortcomings; we ought steadily to try to correct them; but we have absolutely no grounds to work on if we don’t have a firm and ardent Americanism at the bottom of everything.”
=What does it mean to be an American? That’s what USA Today wanted to know last Fourth of July, and their readers told them.
For Jeff Stark of Dublin, Ohio, being an American is “to live in the hometown of hope and dreams . . . where one hot dog stand can turn into two . . . where a second chance always follows a first . . . to live in the land of eternal promise for a better day . . . the Wrigley Field of nations.”
Another Ohio patriot, Mel Mauer, says, “To be American is to be uniquely free.”
Kathleen Butler of Wichita, Kansas, loves America for its diversity, “We are as American as apple pie, or stir-fried rice, or enchiladas or curried chicken. And because of that we are the luckiest people on the planet.”
Being American? “It’s about appreciating my country, loving it deeply and doing what I can to make the USA a better place.” That was how World War II veteran Ezio Moscatelli of Columbia, Missouri, put his patriotism into words.
Opportunity, freedom, diversity, and duty. Four Americans . . .
four patriots . . . four different ways of loving their country.
How about you? Do you love America? Are you the type who gets a lump in your throat when the flag passes by on the Fourth of July? Do you get goose bumps when “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoes in an Olympic stadium? Does a lemonade stand manned by a determined eight-year-old on a hot summer day make you smile? Do America’s unique history and values make you proud of your country?
If you said yes to these questions, congratulations! You’re probably a patriot.
But here’s a much harder question. Do you believe your children, deep down, love this country and what it stands for, just as you do? You might be surprised to find out how your kids really feel about America. This wake-up call of a statistic shocked us. It may shock you, too.
If given the chance, almost one in four young Americans under thirty say they would rather live in another country.
That’s what an Independence Day poll on patriotism taken by Fox News in 2005 found when it asked Americans: “All things being equal, would you prefer to live in the United States or would you prefer to live in some other country?”
Most of us probably feel like almost 95 percent of the respondents over thirty who said they preferred the good old USA. No big surprise there, but nearly a quarter of our young people—the very Americans who are supposed to fight the war on terror, beat back the economic challenge of China and India, and keep our country strong, safe, and prosperous—would hightail it out of here if they could!
And an even higher number of our young teens are pessimistic about America’s future. In a 2005 Time magazine cover story about thirteen- year-olds, the editors themselves were surprised at how gloomy young teens have become about America: “In a shift from just five years ago, when the new millennial teens were generally optimistic about the future . . . almost half, or 46 percent, believe that by the time they are their parents’ age, the U.S. will be a worse place to live in than it is now.”
A startling percentage of our youngsters have little or no hope for America’s future. Almost half, it seems, have no confidence in their own abilities to ensure that our country will remain a good place to live when they are ready to bring up their own children.
Here’s another somewhat startling statistic: In a 2006 Scholastic magazine poll, 80 percent of the kids said that they didn’t want to grow up to be president. The fact that our country was a place where a youngster from the humblest of circumstances could become the country’s leader was once very much part of the American dream. But thirty thousand children in grades 1 to 8 who participated in the Scholastic survey, said, “Thanks but no thanks” to the most important job in the world. In 2004, more than 80 percent of teens in an ABC/
Weekly Reader survey also said they didn’t want to be president. Over 54 percent, both girls and boys from all ethnic backgrounds, thought they could be president, but they’d rather not. The primary reason? They just weren’t interested.
Most families in our country have experienced a better lifestyle in recent years than Americans have enjoyed at any other time in our nation’s past, so these statistics are more than a little confusing. How can some kids today seem to be so negative or apathetic about the country that gives them so much? Why are some so downright uninterested and disillusioned they neither believe America is a special place with a special role to play in the world nor feel a responsibility to be the shapers of America’s destiny as their parents and grandparents were before them?
It’s not all kids, of course. Talk to any group of U.S. Marines or soldiers on a Baghdad street, and you’ll see what America’s young men and women can be and can do. But there’s a disturbing gap separating far too many of our young people from the vast majority of Americans who believe that we are the most privileged people on earth to live in this great country. Call it the Patriotism Gap.
If we, as a nation, allow this growing cynicism to continue to infect our youngest generations, we put them and our country’s future at risk. And the truth is your children could be next to “fall into the Gap.”
This book aims to help parents bridge the Patriotism Gap by instilling a healthy love of country in our children. After all, it is part of our responsibility as Americans and as parents to teach our kids what this nation stands for. To teach them to be grateful for all our country gives to her own people and to people around the world. To teach them about the heroes and the history that will make our children proud to be Americans once again.
We should also help them build the backbone they will need to stand up to those who would harm our country from afar as well as those critics in schools and in the media who tell them and teach them over and over again a dark, negative story of America. Our enemies have been using vast resources to misrepresent our way of life and to indoctrinate their children, whenever and wherever they can, to hate America. Certainly, the least we ought to do is teach our children to value our nation. To put it quite simply: America’s existence as “the shining city on the Hill” really does depend on it.
But how can we bridge this growing Patriotism Gap in very practical ways? First, to understand it, we’ve got to understand “us,” who we are as Americans. Then, we’ve got to understand what’s causing this disconnect, the “Bad Influencers,” as we call them, who are turning our kids off on America. And last, parents need to know what they can do about it.
In this book, we provide real-world ideas and resources, including Dinner Table Debates to have with your family and 60-Minute Solutions that can help you find time in your busy schedule to help your children learn to love America.
What They Don’t Learn in Schools
We know that today it’s not easy to raise a child to be a proud and patriotic American, especially one who understands what has made our country both different and special.
Once upon a time, American children were taught in the classroom from the early grades onward about our country’s great achievements and greatest achievers. In history, civics, and social studies classes, America was held up as what it is: the world’s oldest democracy that has a unique place in the world. Not only did kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but they were taught the truth beyond the Pledge’s simple words. As Americans, we do live in the country unlike any other, one that offers hope and opportunity for all and has a long and proud history of sacrifices made for the freedom of others.
Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were portrayed, not as the deeply flawed, neurotic, or hypocritical human beings they often are today, but as heroes, extraordinary men of wisdom, courage, and vision—men who were able to change the course of history because of their character and their extraordinary actions. Yes, for decades, learning about our history, admiring our heroes, and developing good citizens were fundamental parts of American education, as important as learning those three R’s. But not anymore. The awful truth is that kids learn too little at school about American history, and much of what they do learn is more likely to contribute to the problem of the Patriotism Gap rather than solving it. Equally troublesome, far too many youngsters suffer from this lack of positive civic education from the earliest grades through their college years. Too often, they learn what’s wrong with America before they are told what’s right.
Perhaps many social studies teachers seem to lack perspective because they have actually studied very little history themselves. That sad fact leaves them little choice but to rely almost exclusively on textbooks that espouse such a politically correct view of America’s past it’s no wonder our children’s view of their country is so negative. New York University professor Diane Ravitch in The Language Police, her critique of current history textbooks, found so many examples of anti-American bias in the books she reviewed, she wrote that it often seems “every culture in the world is wonderful except for the United States.” Yes, these are the textbooks your children’s teachers could be relying on. Check your child’s book bag and find out what textbook they’re using. Later on, we’ll give you tools to help you get involved in your child’s history education. We believe learning about America’s past is too important to leave in the hands of biased teachers and textbooks. For when it comes to the education establishment, sometimes it seems citizenship and patriotism have become as politically incorrect as the Founding Fathers.
One parent complained at a meeting we attended, “I spend $40,000 a year sending my son to college. Then he comes home putting down everything I believe in and everything that makes it possible for me to be able to send him to that school.”
Dealing with Downers
Since 9/11 it’s become especially tough to bring up kids who feel good about America. The threat of terrorism has been a concern for all Americans, young and old, and the battle against it is, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, “a long hard slog.” Add to that the fact that for many kids, their first experience with our political system has been the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections— two of the nastiest, most cynical presidential campaigns in recent memory. Most kids today know only two presidents—one who was impeached for lying to a grand jury after misbehaving in the Oval Office and the other who is more often than not portrayed by the media as incompetent, dishonest, or a warmongering cowboy or all three.
Let’s face it. The media has been a driving force in creating the Patriotism Gap. When the Abu Ghraib scandal gets more than fifty front page stories in the New York Times while the liberation of more than twenty million women in the last three years by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq is all but ignored, the Gap grows. When the enormous human relief efforts our military has provided from Baghdad to Bali to Biloxi consistently gets second billing to scandals and screwups, what’s an American child to think of his or her country today?
When the generation of children that we are raising hears little but rampant anti-Americanism trumpeted on the evening news night after night, we should hardly be surprised that teenagers are cynical or downright critical about the place they call home.
When our kids’ favorite late-night TV comedians or the hottest celebrities ridicule our leaders, our traditional American values, or any notion of American exceptionalism, there is a cause and effect on our kids. It pushes them toward the Patriotism Gap, to the indifference and cynicism they think is cool and sophisticated—and there’s nothing funny about that.
You can bet your teenager probably knows vile, angry rap song lyrics that use extreme and inflammatory language to insult and degrade America. Unfortunately, too many teenagers will remember the irresponsible invective spewed out by some celebrities in the days after Hurricane Katrina far longer than the pictures of courageous Coast Guard personnel rescuing storm victims from the rooftops of New Orleans or the hundreds of other stories of Americans helping Americans in the weeks after that calamity. Sadly, most of our kids probably also know more about Michael Moore’s or George Clooney’s distorted take on American current affairs than they know about American current affairs.
One concerned father, a decorated Navy fighter pilot who says he wants to raise his son to be as patriotic as he is, told us that he’s more than a little discouraged, especially by the effect the media can have. “My son is a good student. Reads the papers, watches the news. But there are so many naysayers, so many people who think the best way to show they are smart is by bashing America. It influences him.”
This father is right to be worried because there really isn’t much to counteract this media tide of mean-spirited commentary or the daily diet of anti-American celebrity sarcasm.
So what’s a parent to do?
We say—fight back—and think positively. Because the good news is that unlike so many of the challenges we face, from the war on terror to our nation’s social ills, raising your kids to love their country is one challenge that parents can do something about—up close and personal.
•Our first step back from the Patriotism Gap, then, is to be honest and admit the problem exists—that today most American kids enjoy our country’s many benefits but are not as grateful for these gifts as they should be.
•The next step is to acknowledge that we, as parents, may be contributing to the problem. The truth is that most kids are generally clueless when it comes to understanding that the protected and privileged lives they lead are possible, to a large degree, because they are young Americans.
•But are we, as parents, all that different? We also have to acknowledge that we often forget that the hopes and dreams we have for our children and grandchildren depend on the fact that they are Americans.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from How to Raise an American by Myrna Blyth and Chriss Winston. Copyright © 2007 by Myrna Blyth. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.