6 ways to help young people remember the true meaning of Memorial Day

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what Memorial Day is all about.

The last Monday in May is still the day where we honor men and women who died in service to our country.

But now it’s being crowded out by trips to the lake, family cookouts and mattress sales. It is, perhaps, best known as the unofficial start of summer.

I’m all for family kickball tournaments and discounted appliances. But let’s enjoy those while also honoring Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. And let’s do more than just reshare a patriotic photo on Facebook.

This isn’t meant as a lecture but as a suggestion to parents that they remind young people about the significance of Memorial Day.

This isn’t a new sentiment, either. Just look at what Scouting magazine wrote in our May 1928 issue:

Memorial Day is welcomed not as a chance to play baseball on the corner lot, or to gape at the parade as the band goes by, but as an opportunity for the Scouts to attain a realization that they are the trustees of the traditions of American ideals of service to which this day is dedicated.

For more than 100 years, Scouts have done their “duty to country” — as phrased in our Scout Oath. Here are six ways to keep that patriotic pledge going for another 100 years.

1. Visit a memorial cemetery

Most communities have within driving distance a cemetery where soldiers are interred.

Take your Scouts, in uniform if possible, to the cemetery to clean the grounds and decorate graves with flowers or wreaths.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a listing of state and national veterans cemeteries. The VA also provides a nationwide gravesite locator.

You can learn more about volunteering with the National Cemetery Administration here.

2. Read World War II-era yearbooks

“See you next year!” As World War II began, that oft-used yearbook inscription, scrawled above a classmate’s signature, took on a new meaning.

Teenagers, usually focused on prom or grades or sports, had to face the realities of a global war.

Encourage your school-age kids to flip through dozens of World War II-era yearbooks at this site, created by the National WWII Museum.

The site includes discussion questions inspired by the yearbook pages. For example, in the 1942 volume from Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, one student ponders “Should we hate our enemies?”

Talk through discussion questions with your teen. 

3. Learn about a soldier who died in action

A young person reads in a textbook that more than 400,000 Americans died in World War II and more than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.

But for many of us, adults included, that number is very abstract. The best way to understand the magnitude of this service and sacrifice is learning about a single soldier who died.

This could be an ancestor or family member. Or you could search for a Medal of Honor recipient at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.

The citation for each Medal of Honor recipient includes a narrative explaining how the person died. You might encourage your son or daughter to find a Medal of Honor recipient with the same first or last name, furthering their connection to the past.

4. Visit a VA hospital or veteran

Take treats, books or fresh flowers to a veterans hospital or home of a veteran.

Pretty much any veteran would enjoy a visit from a smiling young person. The young person will benefit from the interaction, as well.

Assuming the veteran is comfortable talking about his or her service, encourage your young people to ask questions and have a conversation.

Find a VA location near you here.

5. Make a patriotic craft project

With kids, telling is rarely as effective as doing.

This site has tons of patriotic craft ideas, many using items already in your pantry.

These craft projects could be done as a family or with your Cub Scout den or pack. Make a flag from drinking straws, a patriotic jar candle, or a red, white and blue wind sock.

6. Watch a military movie or show

Many war movies are inappropriate for children. Saving Private RyanBlack Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty are smart, powerful dramas that remind us about the harsh realities of war. But they aren’t recommended for young people under age 17.

However, there are some military-themed shows and movies recommended for younger audiences by Common Sense Media, my go-to site for determining a movie’s appropriateness.

  • Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front: 2006 Disney Channel movie about an American girl who learns about sacrifice during World War II.
  • Max: 2015 movie about a brave military dog who saves the day.
  • America: The Story of Us: 2010 History channel series that aired in 12 parts. There are episodes about the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II.
  • Patton: 1971 Best Picture winner about World War II Gen. George S. Patton Jr.