During the years 2005 to 2012, when I conducted research on July 4th family rituals, the United States imported — mostly from China — over $32,000,000 worth of American flags. These flags testify to and plot the vigorous ceremonial life of the American nation-state: decorating military veterans graves’ at Memorial Day and the caskets of war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq, waving atop flag poles in front of schools and inside classrooms, at capitals and public buildings. In public places, flags are daily raised and later lowered, raised only at half mast to honor the passing of revered Americans.
But Old Glory comes into its own on America’s birthday. On or near July 4th, flags are flown along local streets in villages and towns. Flags hang in front of private homes, get carried in parades, and are distributed to children attending those parades. I asked children in 2005 and 2012 to photograph how they spent July 4th. Their snapshots showed family members or friends with whom they spent the day, posed near flags or with flags in their hands. At barbeques, parks, swimming pools, or at the beach, the Stars and Stripes inspired the day’s décor.
Youngest Americans in fact added bodily to the patriotic aesthetic by wearing articles of red, white and blue clothing, and by gobbling refreshments adorned in U.S. flag colors. In a sensual way, in settings bedecked in display of surging red, white and blue, children assimilate visceral, experiential lessons about being American, lessons perhaps all the more potent for being conveyed so sensually in a familiar family context. School need not be in session, it seems, for kids to assimilate a sort of embodied civics lesson.
The flag, the chief symbol of patriotic pageantry, has long been known from political socialization research as important for establishing national identity in children. My eight years of fieldwork shows that on July 4th American kids encounter the flag with close correspondence to two other sensual, experiential themes – on the one hand freedom, and on the other hand jarring, explosive startle. These two themes are not articulated literally or explicitly but are embodied as sense-derived, emotive experience.
Out of the recreation surrounding July 4th, children come by a sense of bodily felt freedom. This physical sense of being free stems, first of all, from the mid-summer timing; school is out of session, and kids are free to play in the unencumbered outdoors. Swimming and water play, especially common on July 4th, convey a haptic experience of flowing, free movement: splashing, jumping, diving, sliding, in ways at once buoyant and unrestricted. Eating out of doors, when “you can sit wherever” and dispense with formal table manners, is conducive to a youthful sense of being at liberty. Overall, children ascribe greater scope of behavior and excitement to outdoor play, compared to indoor play. “There are more things you can do outside,” an eight year old boy explained when I interviewed him in his urban home. An eleven year old girl scout who resided in the suburbs voiced that it was fitting to “actually get outside” to do “things that seem free” on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. (The same association of freedom and being out of doors also characterized Memorial Day, generally the time when beaches and pools opened for the start of summer.)
Jarring, explosive startle might seem a surprising theme to attribute to children‘s experiences on July 4th. Adults largely take in stride the day’s explosive displays of fireworks and sparklers, or the blaring sound of fire engines that blast along hometown streets during parades. Among my youngest informants, however, such disquieting eruptions (especially fireworks) had a pronounced significance.
Fireworks were introduced into patriotic celebrations in the United States beginning in the mid-1800s, designed from the start to use sight and sound to spectacular effect. Some children attended community-organized fireworks (led by licensed fireworks operators) or heard and saw community fireworks visible in the sky. Other kids experienced fireworks in neighborhoods where amateur, unlicensed hobbyists put on a street show. Fireworks can be risky endeavors; during the years from 1990 to 2003, an estimated 85,800 pediatric fireworks injuries were treated in the emergency departments of U.S. hospitals.
The risk of fireworks is not lost upon young children, who visibly flinched, startled and cried at the booming noise of public firework displays. Over eight years of observing public fireworks in communities of diverse ethnicity and social class, I saw babies and tots startle, scream and cry at every single fireworks show I attended. Intriguingly, not once did I observe a parent to vacate the scene on behalf of a crying child. Families stayed for the duration of the show, despite sobbing or whimpering infants.
Anxious discomfort was also hard to deny when I observed very young children using sparklers (called by one child “a firework you hold in your hand”). Similarly, children flinched at sounds of 21 gun salutes or ceremonial cannon firings at patriotic events I witnessed, occasions when adults could be seen to cover children’s ears (or their own ears) in response. At parades in upscale and downscale neighborhoods alike, there were children who visibly startled or cried or clung to parents as parading fire engines bellowed their sirens while passing down the street. It was striking that adult spectators were largely unmoved by firetruck sirens, a sound specifically designed to raise alarm.
In interviews, children eagerly talked about their vexation at explosive outbursts, especially during fireworks. A seven year old boy I interviewed, for example, pronounced fireworks to be unpleasantly loud and, by implication, as scary as lightning.
I hear this loud noise. I used to be, I used to not like fireworks. But this year I didn’t hold my ears, well I did once, but then I let them go and I watched all the other fireworks. [He walks to the window:] Two nights ago there was a big storm cloud and it had all lightning in it.
A twelve-year old girl who visited the seashore with her extended family on July 4th, described how her little cousin behaved during fireworks.
We had two four year olds, they’re both my cousins. So one of them sat on my lap … So then my little cousin heard the big boom, and he’d go with his mom … Maybe there should be fireworks that don’t have any noise.
Even though children praised the visual beauty of fireworks as admirable eye candy, the booming explosiveness raised concern . “I don’t want to be burnt,” remarked a seven-year-old girl whose father was injured by a neighborhood fireworks display that year; an errant rocket seared her father, while the girl ran to get away so hurriedly that the chair she was sitting in was still attached to her as she fled. Even when not witnessing such accidents, children were overheard telling cautionary tales to one another about fireworks accidents they’d heard about.
As an artifact of mammalian evolution, dogs and humans alike have an inborn startle response to loud noise. Patriotic fireworks require children, over time, to develop stoicism in the place of their instinctive startle response. (Loud noise is so conducive to triggering the startle reflex that it is often used as a stimulus in experimental studies of startle.) It is as if, for children to join in and celebrate their nation’s rituals, they need to learn to tolerate and gain control over personal, bodily consternation.
Overall July 4th avails a primal, nonverbal lesson to children — a sort of sensory metaphor of national associations. Feelings of experiential freedom, blended with a growing tolerance of “shock and awe” displays, are together incorporated as a gestalt of the day’s sensory experience. Intermingled in this way, these feelings are also linked to the flag, the ever-present backdrop to July 4th. The United States, even for children, is the land of the free and the home of the brave, brave in the sense of withstanding startle (or worse) for the sake of being American.
The late anthropologist Sharon Stephens once noted that studying children’s relationships to their nation is a way to think about a country from the “inside out.” This is a telling insight. As I spoke with children about July 4th I sometimes gained an appreciation that there is a relationship between militarism and the tolerated “shock and awe” of celebration. Boys and girls pointed out to me that fireworks, albeit meant for recreation, were reminiscent of military bombs, gunfire, or the smoke emitting from weapons of war. Consider a nine-year-old girl I interviewed about July 4th who noted that fireworks “sounded like when we were at war with Britain.” A seven-year-old homeschooled boy compared the appearance of a firework that moved about on wheels to a “tank.” The blend of freedom and jarring, explosive startle was symbolically equated, in such comments, with a more mature construct of American patriotism: that military activity is undertaken in the cause of freedom. The flag used to honor or memorialize soldiers, children know, is the same flag waved with glee at parades and picnics.
Compared to civics lessons taught by rote at school, what is learned by children on July 4th appears all the more powerful for its embodied, tacit, experiential acquisition. (Facts about voting or representative government were not salient at all, by comparison.) At the very least, July 4th has some thrust to prime children, as Americans, to hold a deep-seated equivalence between alarming experience and unencumbered freedom, cued at the very sight of the flag.
Author Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, did fieldwork on Memorial Day and July 4th during 2005-2012. She has also studied American families at Christmas and Easter, chronicled in her book “Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith” (University of Chicago Press).
This article has been curated with permission from the American Anthropology Association. Read More