Parenting: Reflections on the Fourth of July - holiday is a time to teach children about protecting their rights and those of others
As I enjoyed the parade, the sparklers and the hot dogs from the grill last week, I was reflecting on how easily we may neglect to think hard about the meaning of traditions and holidays and then convey the ideas to children. Here are some ideas about the Fourth of July.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These words from the Declaration of Independence describe something that is still an incompletely-realized ideal even for many grownups, but what about for children?
Everyone claims to care about children’s happiness and well-being now and in the future. But there is a profound disconnect between that ideal and the actuality of the lives of children in the United States.
UNICEF’s measures of child well-being rank the U.S. lowest among the so-called ‘first world’ nations. From the Children’s Defense Fund report for 2009, we learn that 900,000 children each year are abused or neglected (one every 36 seconds); each year more than 800,000 children spend time in foster care; on any given night, 200,000 children are homeless; in 2006, 3,184 children and teens were killed by firearms; the U.S. has the sixth-lowest high school graduation rate among the top 30 industrialized countries.
The United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have failed to ratify the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children. The preamble affirms the primacy of the “best interests of the child,” the phrase used by our teacher Anna Freud in her pioneering books on children in the legal system.
The U.N. Convention mandates freedom from poverty, protection from exploitation and abuse, and participation in family and community life by children as their development allows. Ensuring that children have strong, healthy bodies is basic to these aims. Having a strong, healthy mind is equally important. The term ‘emotional muscle’ springs from that idea. Parents and children need emotional muscle to best meet the challenges of development.
If we really want children to access their “unalienable rights,” we must protect their lives, with provision of ample food, shelter and protection from abuse. We must protect their liberty by respecting them as valued individuals and paying better attention to their needs and capacities. To ensure their access to the pursuit of happiness, all grownups should support the growth of emotional muscles needed to achieve competence and get the authentic pleasure that comes from mastery of real achievements.
And we have to teach them about their precious rights so that they will work to protect them for themselves and extend them to other people. When you come right down to it, the colonists were simply telling King George that he couldn’t be in charge of them, couldn't boss them around, that they wanted to be in charge of themselves. They were willing to fight for that possibility because it was so important.
We can bring that history to life for our children if we share with them the goal that they become responsible for being in charge of their actions, feelings and values. They have the example of how hard people have worked and fought to preserve our right to make decisions for ourselves, from those early colonists to the soldiers currently far from home and the citizens here supporting them.
As we look forward to other holidays throughout the year, let’s be mindful of the lessons they offer us and our children.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, and author, with Jack Novick, of "Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children," available at amazon.com or through