We’re going on vacation in a couple weeks. We’re going to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown settlement, be at Appomattox for the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, then spend three days in DC. It’s a trip I’ve been anticipating since before my kids were even born. I always knew that I wanted to take my kids to these places I visited as a child, to the places where our country began, to see the memorials and monuments that represent the sacrifices that have brought our country to this day. When we decided that this was the year, the dates chosen specifically to coincide with the Appomattox anniversary, I was almost giddy.
I booked the hotels months ago. I’ve been steadily ironing out the details of the itinerary for weeks. We’re working on the logistics of which route to drive and whether it will be better to go to Arlington National Cemetery on Friday or Saturday afternoon. We’re planning sanity-savers for the very long hours we’ll spend in the van. The trip I’ve dreamed about is about to happen.
But somewhere along the way, little seeds of doubt were planted in my mind.
I think it probably began last summer, as I was beginning to plan this trip, and everyone else was posting pictures on Facebook of their trips to the beach.
Only one of my kids has ever been to the ocean, and she doesn’t remember it. “When will we go to the beach?” is a question I hear quite often.
Then, around fall break, more beach pictures mixed with a bunch of Disneyworld pictures.
Only two of my kids remember our trip to Disney, and they frequently ask to go back.
I started thinking maybe I was cheating my kids by doing so many “educational” vacations instead of the fun, glamorous-looking trips all their friends were taking.
I questioned whether we should back out of our Virginia trip and just go to the beach.
But I’ve been thinking this through. And I’ve come up with an answer that makes me excited again for our education-vacation.
Battlefields and memorials teach our kids that there is something at play that is much bigger than themselves, and that people have died so that they could live in freedom.
Seeing the world as it existed hundreds of years ago at a living history village makes the dry textbooks come alive. They are finally able to grasp that the people in the books were real when they walk in their footsteps on cobblestone streets.
Walking on the very ground where men died forces you out of yourself.
We went to Gettysburg in the summer of 2013. We were there on the 150th anniversary of the three days of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. We walked in the field where Pickett charged. We stood in attics and basements and kitchens that still have bullet holes in the walls.
My kids hadn’t learned much about the Civil War before we went–we didn’t study it in history until the following school year. They didn’t grasp all the ins and outs of why the war was fought, and which army was better commanded. But standing on that battlefield, they were solemn. They understood, each to a different degree, that they were standing on hallowed ground, where men had believed in something so passionately they were willing to die for it.
Before we went, based on the little they had read and learned, they looked at the Confederates as the bad guys. They were appalled at the thought of Kentuckians fighting for slavery. They saw it only in the abstract, and it was easy for them to make snap judgments about who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. And if we hadn’t gone there, they would still be thinking that way, looking at General Lee and Stonewall Jackson and so many brave Southerners as villains.
But standing there, looking across the field where so many of Pickett’s men died, suddenly it was different. The Confederates were real people. Many of them were followers of God, just like us. They were not all cruel slave owners, like some versions of history would have us believe. My kids understood that the Union needed to be preserved and that slavery was wrong, but they began for the first time to see that there were many layers underneath the simple view of North being right and South being wrong. They began to look with compassion on the men who bravely started out on that doomed charge. They felt the weight of a Union victory at such a tremendous cost. They began to get a tiny inkling of the terrible cost that has been paid so many times to ensure the easy life they live today.
That’s important. And I believe they needed to be standing on the actual ground in order to experience that weight. I am so thankful for my parents making the majority of my childhood vacations ones that made history come alive. I just don’t think that kind of awakening will happen in a child who just reads about these events in a textbook for a week out of every school year.
People often lament the upcoming generations’ tendencies to narcissism, self-absorption, and failure to appreciate the privileges they’ve been given. But I wonder how much of that has come from what has been placed before them.
If the only vacations a child has ever known are the beach and Disneyworld, how can we expect them to care about much more than pleasure, ease, and entertainment?
Think I’m placing too great an emphasis on vacation destinations and what effect they have on our kiddos? Then let’s look at other areas.
What movies do you place before your kids? Does it matter? Well, think about the possibilities if you mix up the stream of current, silly, movies-of-little-substance with some strong stories of people who have suffered with faith, or made an impact on the world through their sacrifices, or spent their life in service to others. I was thrilled a few weeks ago to watch End of the Spear for the first time with my kids, and they were entranced. Maybe one of them will one day risk everything for the salvation of some. We have the Joni movie and a documentary on Corrie ten Boom in our closet waiting to be given to one of them. Maybe, when they are called to suffer, they will model the faith of these two incredible ladies.
The same goes with books. Do your kids choose all their own books or do you intentionally place good literature in their hands? Books written not only earlier than this decade, but earlier than this century? Biographies of missionaries, kids who lived during great moments in history, presidents, world-changers: these books may inspire a spark in your child to do something meaningful with his life that Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Twilight just can’t muster.
What about music? Do they only listen to Katy Perry or Ross Lynch? Do you even know what they listen to? They can listen to fun, modern songs, sure, but check the lyrics. Don’t be afraid to say no. And fill your van and their iPod with a mix of those songs and songs of the faith. Songs of Scripture. There are tons of good options that are very fun to listen to, and there are great “tweeny” groups that have the same sound as mainstream groups but lyrics that are good for their souls.
One more: what about their out-of-school hours? If all they ever know are extra-curriculurs and sports that they have chosen because they are fun, how will they ever know the joy of visiting the nursing home and making someone’s day? If we fill up every hour of their time with things that are for their entertainment or things that incline them to focus only on themselves, how will they know the peace that comes from spending an afternoon serving someone who is less privileged than themselves? This one stings, I know, but it deserves consideration.
Please please don’t hear me saying you should never go to the beach. Actually, we’ve already begun to roughly plan next year’s vacation and you know where we’re going? That’s right. The beach. I can’t wait for my kids to stand on the sand and look out and see nothing but water. To feel the grandeur and the wonder of a new part of God’s creation. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take them to Disney. We’ve been there, and if the opportunity arises, I’d like to go again to take the ones who weren’t born yet. And I’m not saying don’t watch the new Cinderella movie or Big Hero Six, or read Magic Treehouse or Harry Potter, or listen to anything on Billboard’s top 40. Heck, we’ve spent hours on iTunes making three volumes so far of great hits of the last several decades to let our kids listen to in the van. And I’m not saying don’t sign your kid up for sports that they love.
I’m just saying don’t do only those things. Give them some cotton candy, but give them some meat, too. If all our kids ever know are things that have been designed and planned for them to have fun and be entertained where all the focus is on them, why would we be surprised at all when they turn into a selfie-obsessed teenager, or worse, a selfie-obsessed adult? Why would we be shaking our heads at their lack of compassion for those who are hurting, lack of passion for spending themselves for anyone but themselves, lack of respect for anyone who has sacrificed for them? If they’ve only known beaches and never seen battlefields, then we shouldn’t expect anything else from them.
So, yes, next year we hope to take our kids to the beach for what will be the first time for five of them.
But this year, we’re taking them to a battlefield.