Myrna Blyth (NRO columnist, former Ladies Home Journal editor, and author of Spin Sisters) and Chriss Winston (former White House speechwriter and veteran politico) are authors (website here) of the new book How to Raise an American: 1776 Fun and Easy Tools, Tips, and Activities to Help Your Child Love This Country. They recently took questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Myrna, why didn’t you go for Spin Sisters-like dish for book #2?
Myrna Blyth: Though, I agree, Spin Sisters was dishy, I really wrote it to show how the liberal bias in media for women works and how it influences so many women. We wrote How to Raise an American because we realized how hard it was to raise patriotic kids in today’s negative news and media culture. We wanted to explain why it is so difficult but to also give parents lots of practical, easy and fun ways to help their children love America.
Lopez: Was there any one incident that made either one of you want to educate America?
Blyth & Chriss Winston: Actually, our research showed that a “Patriotism Gap” was emerging across America that got our attention. In fact, one poll showed that while 97 percent of people think of themselves as patriotic, 70 percent also think children today aren’t as patriotic as earlier generations. We also know that they are more negative and cynical about their country. A Time poll discovered that nearly 50 percent of 13-year-olds think America will be a worse place to live in when they are their parents’ age than it is now while another survey found that 80 percent of teenagers wouldn’t want to be president of the United States. Add to that the fact less than 20 percent of 4th, 8th and 12th graders got a proficient score on the Department of Education’s national history test and it’s clear we’ve got a history education problem. The good news is that research also showed that 93 percent of Americans think parents have the responsibility to raise good citizens and that is what our book aims to help parents do.
Lopez: When I was in the fourth grade I declared that my favorite holiday was Election Day. Is the point of your book that that is not all that common?
Blyth & Winston: Yes, but it’s not just Election Day that gets short shrift. Unfortunately, too many kids now think Memorial Day only means the pools are open and the barbeques are lit. And they don’t know much about Washington or even Lincoln but they think President’s Day makes a great weekend for a ski trip. Often, we don’t even explain to kids why our patriotic holidays were created in the first place, let alone celebrate them appropriately. In the book, we give lots of suggestions of how to learn about and celebrate these holidays. We urge parents to start by taking their kids to the polls on Election Day. It’s a family tradition that kids won’t forget.
Lopez: So your kid’s history book is dumbed down and anti-American. Practically, what do you do?
Blyth & Winston: First, read their book so you know exactly what your child is and isn’t being taught. We were both surprised at how little history is taught today in schools. And when it is taught, kids often hear what’s wrong with America before they are told what’s right. We both think parents should be aware of this. When Chriss read her son’s high-school textbook she was surprised that over a thousand words were dedicated to America’s role in Nicaragua while the American space program received 78 measly words. We put the first man on the moon, one of the greatest technological achievements in the history of the world and a story of individual courage and creativity that was all but ignored. It’s really important that parents find out how history is being taught in their children’s school. To make it easier, we’ve included a Classroom Checklist of important questions parents can ask teachers.
Lopez: How does a child declare himself a patriot and not get beat up?
Blyth & Winston: Kids must have the backbone to stand up for their country which isn’t always easy, especially as they get older. Of course, the media doesn’t help. It can influence a lot of kids and make them cynical, apathetic, even highly critical about our country. So it’s up to parents to be a counterbalance to this because no one really has as much influence on a child as a parent. Ronald Reagan in his farewell address said, “Children, if you’re parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let them know and nail ‘em on it.” One good way to make sure they don’t nail you, if you’re a parent, is to help start a history club at school or with other parents and their kids. Youngsters really are interested in hearing about America’s past when they realize it is their history, too. How to Raise an American gives step by step suggestions for getting a club up and running that can both educate and keep kids entertained.
Lopez: Do children really take well to visiting presidential museums instead of Disney World for vacation?
Blyth & Winston: In our book, we suggest places to go like Cape Canaveral or the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola on the way to Disney World. In fact, we recommend more than 250 “Top Spots” — five historical sites or natural wonders for each state and a few extras that kids will enjoy. And every spot has a website full of information for your visit. As long as you feed kids frequently and let them buy souvenirs wherever they go, they like to visit historic places. Both our sons loved Williamsburg. Chriss’s son loved touring the U.S.S. Yorktown and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. Myrna’s sons liked walking the battlefield of Gettysburg, visiting Niagara Falls, and even though they were city slickers, they had a great time on a trip that included a covered wagon ride in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Lopez: Chriss, living in D.C., do you encounter more educated children than Myrna does in NYC?
Winston: Kids who live in the D.C. area have so many wonderful opportunities to learn about our country’s history. The Smithsonian, the Capitol, Mt. Vernon, the list is practically endless, and many children have the opportunity to visit these important historic sites with their parents or through school. But while we were doing research for our book, we held a couple of focus groups with parents in the Washington, D.C., area and what we found was a little disturbing. These parents said they knew the importance of teaching their children about American history and government but admitted they didn’t spend the kind of time they should actually doing it. The book is full of websites for many of our most famous historic sites along with sites that teach children about how our government works. So, even if you don’t live near Washington or if you do, you can have a lot of fun on the web learning about American government and history.
Lopez: Chriss, you’re spending the semester at Harvard? Are parents sending any fans of America to the Ivies?
Winston: They are. Many of the students at the Kennedy School are here because they want a career in public service, to help make America a better place. They are idealistic and enthusiastic about community service, and that’s a good thing for our country’s future. I only wish they were more interested in American history and the idea that America has a unique role in the world promoting and protecting democracy.
Lopez: Would either of you like to teach social studies after putting this book together?
Blyth & Winston: Well, we’re not sure we’d like to teach social studies but working on this book made us passionate supporters of the need for more American history in our schools. But not more of the same. The American story is one of individual courage, vision, ingenuity, and sacrifice, a wonderful history full of heroes than can inspire all children. The next “Greatest Generation” will have to fight the war on terror, beat back the economic challenge of China and India and keep our country strong, safe, and prosperous. To do that they need to love and respect their country and that takes understanding both its past and the values that make it great.
Lopez: Who is Ted Rubin and why did you include his story?
Blyth & Winston: Throughout the book we tell American tales of people who represent different qualities that are very American. Ted Rubin was a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America, joined the U.S. Army and became a hero in the Korean War but only received his Medal of Honor recently. We found that immigrants, religious people, and the military are among the most patriotic Americans. Well, Ted Rubin was a man of faith, a soldier who protected and sacrificed for his fellow soldiers, and an immigrant who, though he had to wait for his Medal of Honor for almost fifty years, deeply loves America.