Dear Other Dad —
Fourth of July was a disaster. My kids didn’t want flags up and they gave me a hard time about wearing red, white, and blue. I let them put up their pride flags in June, so why can’t they do this for me? When did loving my country become a bad thing?
You are not alone in seeing a generational shift away from embracing the American flag. Gen Z has the lowest rates of self-identified patriotism among all demographics, a title once held by their predecessors, millennials. These statistics raise questions. What do symbols like the flag or “red, white, and blue” convey to kids today? What does patriotism look like for them?
Let’s start with the American flag. For many older Americans (but, to be clear, not all by a long shot), the flag represents the values to which we’re taught to pledge allegiance: liberty and justice for all.
The flag for many represents battles fought against Nazis and kamikaze bombers, as well as the “American dream” ideal in which anyone can become who they wish, and cherished rights like freedom of speech. And, of course, because it represents a place, it almost means pride of home. If that’s what the flag symbolizes to you, flying it seems natural and worthy.
But what if that isn’t what the flag symbolizes to your kids?
They live in an age where it is not only their families or local schools telling them about history; they have access to a fuller picture of American history as well as real-time updates on what is happening right now around the nation.
They can see that “liberty and justice for all” has not yet become more than aspiration. For instance, they know that the founding of the nation required the displacement of indigenous people and much of the nation’s growth was financed by slavery.
They may be aware of injustices in their own lifetimes, like that LGBTQ people only have full civil rights protections in 21 states or that studies continually show racial discrimination in criminal sentencing. The flag you think of as carried into battle in World War II was also flown in Iraq, a war even conservatives now repudiate and which fueled the rise of Isis.
They have also come of age in a time when Trumpism implicitly linked the flag with a particular brand of conservativism that is overtly nativist, anti-immigrant, biased toward Christianity over other faiths, and vocally anti-transgender.
Flag-waving and flag-wearing have become associated with rallies where speeches and merchandise capitalize on sexism, homophobia, and racism — all of which are excused as being funny. (“Can’t ya take a joke?” might as well be the new national anthem.) At the same time, Gen Z has witnessed the increase in hate crimes and seen how often the perpetrators espouse nationalist sentiment.
So maybe your kids don’t want to fly the flag because to them it means liberty and justice for only some, or they relate it to unjust war, or they associate it with people whose values they find abhorrent. In that case, it’s as natural for them to reject the flag as it is for you to embrace it.
I notice that you referred to “their pride flags” as being a parallel construct, so consider that for a moment. You don’t say “our pride flags” as if they represent your whole family; you think of the stripes in that flag as meaningful only to your children.
That appears to be how they feel about the American flag: it signals your values, but not theirs. You’re likely all longing for buy-in: they may wish you’d see the pride flag as encompassing you as an ally just as much you wish they felt comfortable with the best of what an American flag represents.
Free expression works both ways, so you all need to acknowledge that your beliefs are your beliefs and you should be able to say so. That means, if your kids can fly their flags, you can fly yours. They need to accept that this is important to you, but it might help them to know what you really mean by it.
Tell them specifically and sincerely what message you hope to send with your display, what values you are representing. They may not agree with you, but they’ll know that you have put thought into it. As long as you don’t require them to dress in matching colors or hang paraphernalia from their windows, they can’t accuse you of misrepresenting them.
But before you write them off as anti-American, reconsider what their version of patriotism might look like. For you, it may take the form of saying the pledge, putting up flags, or wearing a star-spangled tee at your cookout.
For them, protesting, being activists for causes they like, or voting (in record numbers) may be how they show love for their country or at least their hope for what it can be. In fact, they may see rejecting nationalism as its own version of patriotism; spouting platitudes about being “the greatest democracy on earth” means less than doing the work to make that actually true.
Talk to your kids about what might make them feel better about flying an American flag. If it’s in your power to help them reach a place of comfort with this symbolism, great. And if what they seek requires more change than you alone can make, respect their honesty, and then ask that they respect you, too, as you celebrate in your own red, white, and blue way.
David Valdes is an award-winning playwright and the author of five books, including Spin Me Right Round, coming from Bloomsbury in 2021. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and on Medium, where he writes a weekly advice column as Your Other Dad.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.