By Catherine Skinner
As a little girl, I was no stranger to solemnity. Sitting quietly through school assembly was a monthly practice from as early as grade one. Six-year-old me, criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor, hands in my lap as the parish priest said mass. Observing the Stations of the Cross at Easter. It was easy to be silent. To listen to the words being spoken by the adults. To wrap my little brain around the idea of sacrifice, freedom, and grief. The adults in my world took great pains to deliver these concepts to us in language we could understand, and ritual and remembrance were a daily part of my life.
I’m not religious anymore, but I am a mother to three amazing young people. We strive to help our kids embrace tradition and we’ve built a system of values for our family that retains the most meaningful elements of our upbringing, blended with modern context. Remembrance is more important than ever, as I have to contextualize and explain the atrocities of the world to my ultra-bright eleven and fourteen-year-olds who are asking questions I’d never thought I’d have to answer.
We have a five-year-old in our house too, and I think this will be the first time he really grasps what’s happening on November 11th. I’m not aware of any war stories from my own family, so we don’t have personal memories to help explain why Remembrance Day is important, but when we sit down to explain why so many people are wearing poppies, we begin with gratitude.
We help our children understand how Canada is different from many other countries in the world. How people here don’t have to worry about war, how we have systems in place to help our poor, how we take care of each other by paying taxes to make sure people have healthcare. We talk about how blessed we are that we strive for equal rights. We discuss reconciliation and the deep value of the Indigenous people who were here long before our ancestors. As we talk about this, we acknowledge that we live in a country that is actively striving to make a safe, healthy place to live not just for the citizens who are born here, but for people who are fleeing their homelands because it is too dangerous to live there anymore. We tell our kids that all of these amazing Canadian values, and the freedom we have to fight for the values that are most important to our family are in place because very brave men and women fight and serve to protect us, and other people in the world who need help.
As we explore how important it is to be grateful for this incredibly privileged way-of-life, we talk about sacrifice. Not just the sacrifice of service, but the sacrifice many families have made and continue to make when they lose a loved one in the line of duty. We talk about how war forces people to experience things nobody can imagine, how it is very dangerous, and how sad it can be for people who have been to war to return to normal life afterward. How they often lose people they are friends with, and how Remembrance Day can be a very sad day too.
We examine silence with our kids. We invite them to find quiet and stillness, and give them the space to see where their minds take them as they reflect on these ideas of gratitude, freedom and sacrifice. Then we let them contextualize what they think and feel with something creative; drawing, storytelling, writing. I encourage you to try this too, you will be amazed at the depth of their ability to understand concepts that we, as adults, cannot fully comprehend. Even if your kids are learning about Remembrance Day at school, make this something to discuss at home. It’s important for your children to understand the unique stories and values that shape your own family’s feelings around November 11th.
If your kids are an appropriate age to show respect at a public Remembrance Day commemoration, this is a beautiful experience to share as a family, and so meaningful for our veterans to see young people taking an interest and honoring their service. Don’t be shy, introduce yourselves, thank them for their service. Take flowers, cards or drawings to lay at the monument. A quick look at local listings should offer you several choices for ways to participate in Remembrance Day events.
Finally, a very beautiful and uniquely Canadian way to discuss Remembrance Day is by reading and discussing the John McCrae poem, In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields, John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Here’s a family-friendly link to the Farnham Youth Choir singing In Flanders Fields:
And an excellent Scottish-produced video that explains why people wear poppies on November 11th:
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