How Do I Explain America to My Children?

Can I be honest? In my three decades, I’ve never known America to be so divided. It hurts that this is the only America my children have ever known. For the last few months, I’ve been praying and pondering, trying to find my way back to what unites us. I’ve been trying to answer their questions, to explain: Why is everyone so angry, mommy? 

How do I explain–with so many shouting to make America great again“–that we are great, that we always have been, and that we never were. What does that even mean, making America great? Great how, or should I say: for whom?


When we say America, what do we mean? Do we mean the America of our parents’ generation, or of our forefathers? What about our foremothers, and what of their scores of slaves? Let’s go back even further: Do we dare to reclaim the unblemished dream of an America before Columbus and Vespucci? Before the first mortal footprint marred the land east of the Bering Strait, were we great? And if so, where did we first go wrong?

This is what I’ve been wondering, what I’ve been trying to gather into words I can use to explain.

Before America was a nation with a name, it was a land: a beautiful expanse of opportunity.

America is its forests and its canyons. America is its purple mountains majesty, its oceans and rivers wide, its lakes both little and Great. America is timber and coal and clean water. America is beach and prairie and desert. It is glorious, and it is finite.

So, I explain: America is something we honor. America is something we explore and relish and marvel over. America is something we protect.

The first Americans understood this better. They lived in community with the trees, the buffalo, the earth. They honored, explored, relished, and marveled. They understood human frailty, the interdependence of all the living. But America is more than sticks and stones.

America is a people.

America is a nation of pioneers and wanderers. We Americans are seekers, inquisitive and fearless. We are adventurers, both sure and aimless. Americans understand that new horizons require boldness, that progress requires sacrifice, that some roads are dead ends but not all journeys depend on roads.

And I explain: America is a dream. It is a journey, and like any journey it requires both conviction and reflection. It is a journey each of us begins alone, though we are never walking lonely. We share this dreamscape with other dreamers, so we need to remember to make space.

We need to respect those who walk beside us, because ultimately, America is an idea.

America is the audacious, radical assertion that all people are created equal. That no wanderer, no dreamer, no adventurer has more right to creation than any other. America is the idea that each and every person–man, woman, child–has the irrepressible right to live and love in dignity and freedom.

And I explain: There will be people who lie to you about this. About your worth. About your right to walk, head high and free. Or it may be others they lie to you about: that the way they dress, what language they speak, where they pray, or how they love makes them less American, less worthy.

Make no mistake. These liars? They may be wrong, but they are America, too. Do not belittle them because they try to narrow your vision. Do not shackle them because they try to silence you. Speak up in kindness, in truth, in boldness. Turn around, my son, my daughter. Walk the other way; there are many roads to take. They cannot shatter your dreams. They don’t own America.

America is not one thing: one way of life, one color of skin, one faith or creed, one political party, one path in this multi-faceted life.

I try and try and try to explain: there is no need to fear those walking beside you, not even the bullies. Because America is bigger than the bullies. As a land, it is wider. As a people, it is wiser. And as an idea, well, it is stronger. 


I tell my children to trust their God, while trusting others to make their own decisions about Him. I explain that this skin they live in is worth loving, and so are their neighbors’. I tell them this land they live on is for holding, for saving for those who will come after and, too, for sharing with those beside them.

And perhaps it all sounds a bit fantastic, when there are lives on the line and only so much money in the bank. When it feels like there just isn’t enough space on this road for us all, I try to explain: Jesus took five hunks of bread and two dead fish, and he managed to feed the masses. But first, he asked a few adventurous men to humble themselves and open up their hands.

Hope is a hard thing to explain.

And maybe this is the crux of it. Maybe this is why we are all so tight-wound and tight-fisted and entrenched these days: because hope hurts. And yet, like a beautiful land, a wandering people, an irrepressible idea, it is worth seeking out–and once found, it is worth holding tight.

So, maybe America wasn’t as great as we thought, but maybe it’s still better than we fear. Maybe if we switch off the TVs and set down the gloves and step off of our soapboxes and just look around us, we’ll find the America we’ve half-forgotten in the places and faces that, for all their beauty, are sitting quietly outside of the limelight. They’re waiting to remind us.

We are America.

Or maybe, if we keep moving forward–together–one day, we could be.


  1. Katja says:

    HI Bethany, wonderfully put! What a great summary of what has been happening and what should happen in a beautiful country as yours,love from Katja, Germany

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