Every year, around July 4, children absorb the history lessons that adults in their lives wish to impart about America. They hear stories about America's beginnings and social movements, struggles that continue to define us -- or so we tell our children, in an effort to explain America as "the land of opportunity." My father, a Holocaust survivor, was among the millions who came to America in the 1940s dreaming that freedom and democracy could be translated into something physical, a meaningful everyday reality. He passed hope, perseverance, and a work ethic on to our family, and in doing so, he reinforced values much more lasting than the political divisions and controversies that could consume our nation at any one time.
But while most schoolchildren absorb our national history and see how American values resonate within the family unit, the Fourth of July from a child's-eye view has far less to do with history lessons and inter-generational wisdom than it does with relationships and having fun. Children are not overly concerned with the raw facts of our history. Any parent can tell you this. On the Fourth of July, or any holiday for that matter, children think: party, games, music, family, friends.
For kids (and adults, too), summer holidays -- and especially the Fourth of July--are about the celebration and force of shared experience. We all live busy lives, but our children and teens want to celebrate with us. Research repeatedly supports this. Kids want quality time with their parents, even as they grow and test their independence.
Here are some ways to enjoy and support your child on the July 4 holiday and throughout the summer:
- Validate your child's interests and emotions. Parents can get in the habit of making plans in which adults are the focus, and then, remarkably, they expect their children to learn how to think independently, express opinions, and distinguish between their own needs and the needs of others. Whether your child is young or old, try asking: What would you like to do today? Children need to know that their feelings are valued (even though we must tell them at times that negative behaviors associated with their feelings are not acceptable). This is how they develop self-confidence and emotional intelligence.
- Consider your child's age. Children are easily overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of vacation events. Your holidays and vacations will be less stressful if your plans are appropriate for the developmental stage of your child. While older children may enjoy sitting for long periods, younger children usually need less structured playtime.
- Younger children are also much more sensitive to noise and may not be ready for the sounds of fireworks on July 4. If your child expresses intense fear and anxiety about firework explosions, then it might be better to stay home and watch fireworks on television. You can help your child grow comfortable hearing loud noises; for instance, some parents find it useful to pop balloons with their children.
- Involve your child in the planning and preparing. Holidays represent a disruption in a family's normal schedule, and for some children the disruption is very stressful. Consider your child's individual needs and expectations. It's a good idea not only to tell your child what to expect, but also to involve him/her in the planning process. Younger children often like to help their parents pack; they usually feel less anxious when they're empowered to make decisions that will shape their holiday experience. Remember to plan for your child's special nutritional needs or medication, a dramatic change in eating patterns or medication could have negative medical consequences.
- Model common sense and personal care. There's a reason why accidents are the number one cause of death among children and adolescents: the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision-making and risk-taking, isn't fully developed until around age 25. Among the simplest ways to prevent an accident on July 4 is by keeping fireworks out of your children's reach. The risk of being injured while playing with fireworks is about three times as high for children ages 10-14 as for the rest of the population.
- Use the holiday to reinforce respect and social responsibility. Taking care of oneself and others are values modeled in the home, but children need to see how these values have social currency. There is no better time than the Fourth of July to highlight volunteerism and how different people uniquely contribute to the community. So, after a barbecue or campfire, involve your child in the cleanup. We want our kids to keep the earth clean, and, at the moment, to learn something from the oil spill in the Gulf. We'll make a lot more progress if we consistently model environmentally responsible behavior.
- Have fun -- enjoy the time that you have together.
Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz
President, the Child Mind Institute