This past Memorial Day, I was reminded of a story about a child living through the Battle of Britain.
It’s 1940. The Nazis are intensifying their evening bombing attacks on London, so that each nightfall brings the terrifying anticipation of indiscriminate destruction and sudden death. During this most extraordinary of times, a young boy is asked a quite ordinary question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Rather than answering “A pilot” or “A policeman” or even “A soldier”, the boy instead simply replies, “Alive.”
That incident strikes a chord with me, having just commemorated Memorial Day during a pandemic. Each year at this time when we honor the sacrifice of our fallen warriors, I wonder what we should tell children who are surrounded by the intense images of mortality they see on television—the rows of tombstones, the laying of wreaths, the playing of Taps. But this year that question is even more salient. Before, during, and after Memorial Day, our children have been bombarded with additional reminders of the fragility of life—the omnipresent face mask, the relentless instructions to keep six feet away from another human being, the obligatory announcements of the latest COVID-19 death toll.
In 2020, we recognize not just our military heroes, but another type of hero as well. The heroes fighting the virus are armed not with guns and artillery but medicine and ventilators. And the threat they are fighting is not safely confined—in a child’s mind—to another time or place, but is here now, in our backyards, parks, and playgrounds, affecting our way of life, mocking our usual frivolity at holiday barbeques, shutting down our schools.
It seems to me this must be a bit much for a child. Between the graves of Memorial Day and the masks of COVID-19, are today’s children silently wondering if they will make it to adulthood alive? And, if so, is there an opportunity for us to calm their fears by focusing their attention away from mortality and toward the positive life lessons these images can teach them?
I believe this is such an opportunity. I believe we can help young children learn to process what they see and hear into positive messages about how to tap into the virtues that are inside of them. That is, I believe we can use the challenges of our time to teach children the traits that each of us needs in order to overcome challenges, defeat adversity, and become heroes ourselves.
What are these virtues? We all know of many, and each of us can teach them in our own way. Here are just a few:
- I think this is the virtue that leads to all others. If one establishes the daily habit of recognizing what one is thankful for, life’s bountiful opportunities are more likely to shine clearly. Foremost among our many blessings is the protection provided by our heroes. The best way to express our gratitude is to live like them, and to carry on their mission to help assure our future will be a bright one.
- Resilience. This means never giving up. Whatever challenges come along, our military and medical heroes deal with it. Yes, this comes from training and experience. But resilience also comes from the confidence we have in ourselves, despite moments of failure and despair. Heroes accomplish amazing feats by looking adversity in the eye and overcoming it.
- But how can we be resilient? One tool we can use is our own ability to adapt—to enhance the skills we need in the circumstances and use our creativity to find new ways to solve new problems. If you never give up—resilience—you will find a way to succeed—adaptability.
- Heroes risk their lives because they care about others. But most of the time we can help others with little risk to ourselves. Everyone deserves to be treated as a valuable individual. We wear a mask not just to protect ourselves but to protect other people. And we treat the stranger with respect because they have needs and feelings just like us.
- There is nothing more important than family, friends, and community. Ultimately, our love for each other is what gives these virtues their power and significance. And encourages us to remember our fallen heroes.
- Optimism and Faith in the Future. If we all try to adhere to these and other virtues, then there is every reason to believe the future is bright—for us, our families and our country. We owe it to our heroes to go forward with the attitude best expressed by Winston Churchill: “For myself I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
Of course, this is a very short sample of virtues that our children should learn about. What other virtues would you discuss with a child and how would you teach those virtues? Would you use examples from your own life, from history? Would you ask the child to think of how they could put each virtue into practice?
We should use the challenges of today and the sacrifices of our fallen heroes to help our children learn important life lessons. And, of course, the very best way to teach our children is by example, to practice these virtues ourselves.
Bryan E. Kelly, CFP®
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