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Living History: How a Trip to D.C. Excites Young Citizens

A recent trip to the nation's capital with my kids reminds me of how parents are their kids best teachers.

Call it a patriotic pilgrimage. I love DC. I love the sense of humility I feel as I walk the mall and admire the monuments. I love that on every corner stands a tribute to our history and its heroes.

As a Social Studies teacher, I  always try to infuse my children with a sense of pride and gratitude for our nation's ideals, but the reality is that it needs to be conveyed with images and words that are far more articulate than mine.

And fortunately for us, these images and ideals are less than a day's drive to the south (if you hit Baltimore before rush hour!) so with a long Christmas vacation looming we took off for the capital.

The challenge as parents is to help our children comprehend how they are lucky and privileged to live in the United States. The values of our country—a fervent belief in democracy, and personal liberties  allow us to live the way we live. It is at the core of everything we do, but as adults we understand this and we need to make sure our kids do too. It is a part of safeguarding these rights for our children: ensuring that they recognize how these civil liberties originated.

These liberties were hard earned, and in that sense we owe a tremendous amount to those that fought for them. I could see this notion taking root in my seven and-eleven-year-old on our trip.

"Was Lincoln a good president?" My seven-year-old asked at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Yes."

"Because he freed the slaves?"

"That's part of it.  He worked very hard to keep our country together and give African Americans freedom."

My youngest, only four, admired the physical beauty of the marble statue and asked if he could climb onto Lincoln's lap. Perhaps it is a stretch, but I would like to believe that something about Lincoln's wise face made my usually timid son feel safe.

My eleven-year-old read the Gettysburg address out loud and although I doubt she understood much of what she read, I got the sense that his words made an impression on her.  She grasped that Lincoln himself called upon those pillars of democracy—our founding fathers, as he spoke in the aftermath of a bloody battle. I am certain that the same words on a piece of paper in a classroom would not have had the same impact as they did inscribed next to the larger than life statue of our sixteenth president.

She was similarly in awe at the Holocaust museum where she observed that the visitors constituted a very international group.

"Most of the people here aren't even Jewish," she remarked proudly, touched that people from all over the planet cared enough to learn about a blight on humanity that had caused millions of her own ancestors to perish. Thus the idea of a collective humanity formed in her conscious self. I hope she will believe that humans need to watch out for one another, and I hope she will appreciate her responsibility to learn history, its mistakes and consider them in her own future.

Understanding that they are not powerless to affect change is crucial to the development of a sense of civic duty in our young people. Examining the iconic figures of history who have achieved change and upheld democracy helps kids to see the importance of democracy and civil rights, at home and abroad.

While walking through the new and beautiful Martin Luther King memorial, my middle son tried to explain to his four-year-old brother that you should judge people by their actions and not their appearance. Their little faces gazed up at Mr. King, who looked quite imposing as he looked out over the tidal basin. They listened to me explain the injustices that plagued African Americans not so long ago.

"I would have helped if I had been alive," my seven-year-old said.

"I bet you would have," I replied.

"Lots of Northerners went down there to register them to vote, right?" my daughter asked. "That's something we could have done!"

Their synapses were firing away and I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that they cared enough to listen to me drone on about history, but mostly that they felt the past, and it resonated enough that they wondered what they may have done to help shape it. And this is crucial to democracy and humanity—individual citizens' participation.

We have been home a few days now, and I am still fielding questions about World War II, Civil Rights and the Civil War. I know it won't last forever, but maybe by the time their memories fade and the questions wane, it will be time for a return trip to our nation's capital.

Or at least a day trip to the Statue of Liberty.

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