“I found it mom, I found it!” called my daughter. ‘It’ was her great-uncle’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Together we held a piece of paper over that section of the wall and carefully rubbed a crayon to create an image. Back home, we framed the image, along with a snapshot of my daughter pointing to the name’s location, and hung it on our family room wall.
Since 1971, Americans have celebrated Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. It’s often treated as the unofficial start of summer, with family picnics and other outdoor activities. However, its actual purpose is to commemorate soldiers who have died while serving their country. That’s not exactly an easy concept to share with children, especially if they have questions about why nations go to war and whether they will have to fight someday.
If you can, start the conversation with words of appreciation for the service of those who died and sympathy for their families and friends who miss them. Use language similar to what you would say after any tragic event: “I feel sad that so many people died.” “I’m glad people tried to help, even though it was risky and some of them died.” “It must have taken a lot of courage to go so far from home and fight.” “I wonder how their families felt when they heard about their deaths.”
Introduce the concept of war by inviting children to recall times they have felt like fighting. Perhaps they were angry because someone treated them unfairly. Maybe they were standing up for others who were being hurt or discriminated against. They might have wanted something that someone else had. Then research (or recall) reasons countries have given for going to war and noticed how they are similar.
Not every person in military service joined because of patriotism. Many appreciate the job skills they will gain. Some are looking forward to the college funds they can receive after serving. Others see service as a fresh start, a way out of poverty, or a steady income to support their family. With older children, discuss the variety of reasons that someone might become a soldier. Wonder aloud whether the reasons make a difference in how we remember a life lost while serving..
Try to avoid glorifying war. Many great military figures fought because they wanted lasting peace in the world and saw no other way to obtain it. They missed their families, mourned when those around them died, and encouraged others to find diplomatic ways to end the battles. Encourage children to brainstorm other ways to address conflicts besides fighting.
Even if your weekend is mostly about having fun, take time to do something as a family on Monday to honor those who have died. It could be as simple as observing a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time as part of the National Moment of Remembrance. Make a cutout of a red poppy – the Memorial Day flower of remembrance – and pin it to your shirt or beach bag. Visit a veteran’s cemetery and place a small stone or flag near one of the headstones. Or post a message on social media acknowledging the sacrifice so many have made on behalf of their country.