© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite


Yesterday I read through a parenting book called How to Raise an American. The book is full of helpful advice for raising children with an unthinking allegiance to the nation of your choice. This one is pitched at the United States, but the techniques described will work equally well — and have worked equally well — to produce unquestioning loyalty to almost any political entity. Lithuanian, are you? Just change the relevant facts, dates and flags, and this book will help you create a saluting servant of Lithuania, singing the National Hymn with pride:

Lithuania, my homeland, land of heroes!
Let your Sons draw strength from the past.
Let your children follow only the paths of virtue,
working for the good of their native land and for all mankind.

(To foster an even higher degree of rabid Lithumania, leave out the part about ‘all mankind.’ Pfft.)

It goes without saying that the same techniques promoted in this book fostered unthinking allegiance to Germany in the 1930s, China in the 1950s, and probably Genghis Khan in the 1220s, for that matter. These are irrelevant, of course, because we are very, very good and they were all very, very bad.

All the same, I’d prefer my kids forgo unthinking allegiance in favor of thoughtful critical engagement. That way, if our nation ever did do something bad — hypothetically, campers, hypothetically — my kids would be in a position to challenge the bad thing, though all around them salute and sing.

It’s Kohlberg’s sixth and highest level of moral development — to be guided by universal principle, even at a high personal cost, to do what’s right instead of what is popular, patriotic, or otherwise rewarded by those around you.


During her after-school snack several weeks ago, Delaney (6) asked, “What does ‘liberty’ mean?”

I realized right away why she would ask about ‘liberty’ and was once again ashamed of myself in comparison to my kids. I don’t think I pondered the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance until I was well into middle school. When I was her age, I’m certain that I thought “EyePlejjaleejins” was one word that meant something like “Hey, look at the flag.” I certainly didn’t know I was promising undying loyalty to something.

“Liberty means freedom,” I said. “I means being free to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt someone else.”

“Oh, okay.” Pause. “What about ‘justice’?”

“Justice means fairness. If there is justice, it means everybody gets treated in a fair way.”

“Oh! So when we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ it means ‘everybody should be free and everybody should be fair.'”

“That’s the idea.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I like that.”

I like it too. A fine, fine idea. I also like the idea that the next time Laney said the Pledge, she had a little more knowledge of just what she was pledging her allegiance to.

There’s an email that circulates quite a bit during the times we are asked to stand united against [INSERT IMPLACABLE ENEMY HERE] — the text of a speech by the comedian Red Skelton in which he recounts the words of an early teacher of his. The teacher had supposedly noticed the students going through the rote recitation of the pledge and decided to explain, word for word, what it meant:

It would have been interesting, even instructive, if Skelton had held up a photo of himself and his class saluting the flag, which for the first 50 years was done like so:

bellamy salute

This gesture was replaced with the hand-over-heart, for some reason, in 1942.

Delivered in 1969, Skelton’s piece is a bit saccharine in the old style, of course. And I’ll refrain from answering his rhetorical question at the end, heh. But the idea itself — of wanting kids to understand what they are saying — I’m entirely in favor of that.

Getting kids to understand what the pledge means solves one of the four issues I have with the Pledge of Allegiance. There is the “under God” clause, of course (which the Ninth Circuit court essentially called a constitutional no-brainer before wimping out on procedural grounds) — but that’s the least of my concerns.

Far worse is the fact that it is mandated, either by law, policy, or social pressure. No one of any age should be placed in a situation where a loyalty oath is extracted by force, subtle or otherwise.

Worse than that is something I had never considered before I heard it spelled out by Unitarian Universalist minister (and Parenting Beyond Belief contributor) Kendyl Gibbons several years ago, at the onset of the latest Iraq War, in a brilliant sermon titled “Why I’m Not Saying the Pledge of Allegiance Anymore.” At one point she noted how important integrity is to humanism:

One of the most basic obligations that I learned growing up as a humanist was to guard the integrity of my given word. Who and what I am as a human being is not predicated on the role assigned to me by a supernatural creator; neither am I merely a cog in the pre-ordained workings of some cosmic machine. Rather, I am what I say I am; I am the loyalties I give, the promises I keep, the values I affirm, the covenants by which I undertake to live. To give my loyalties carelessly, to bespeak commitments casually, is to throw away the integrity that defines me, that helps me to live in wholeness and to cherish the unique worth and dignity of myself as a person….We had better mean what we solemnly, publicly say and sign.

And then, the central issue — that the pledge is to a flag, when in fact it should be to principles, to values. One hopes that the flag stands for these things, but it’s too easy for prcinples to slip and slide behind a symbol. A swastika symbolized universal harmony in ancient Buddhist and Hindu iconography, then something quite different in Germany of the 1930s and 40s. Better to pledge allegiance to universal harmony than to the drifting swastika.

The same is true of a flag — any flag. Here’s Kendyl again:

I will not give my allegiance to a flag; it is too flimsy a thing, in good times or in bad; if it is even a symbol for the values I most cherish, that is only because of the sacrifices that others have made in its name. I will not commit the idolatry of mistaking the flag for the nation, or the nation for the ideals. Yet I must find an abiding place for my loyalty, lest it evaporate into the mist of disincarnate values, powerless to give any shape to the real lives that we live in the real world. Therefore my allegiance is to my country as an expression of its ideals.

To the extent that the republic for which our flag stands is faithful to the premises of its founding and to the practices that have evolved over two centuries to safeguard our freedoms and equal justice, it has my loyalty, my devotion, even my pride. But to the extent that it is a finite and imperfect expression of the ideals to which my allegiance is ultimately given, to the extent that it falls into deceit and self-deception, into arrogance and coercion and violence, into self-serving secrecy and double standards of justice, to that extent my loyalty must take the form of protest, and my devotion must be expressed in dissent.

It remains to this day one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches I have ever heard. And it continues to motivate me to raise children who pledge their allegiance conditionally rather than blindly. That will make their eventual allegiances all the more meaningful.

The complete text of Kendyl’s talk is here.



This was written on Tuesday, 11. March 2008 at 09:47 and was filed under critical thinking, My kids, Parenting, schools, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. Don’t you wish you had a queen, Dale?

    “I, Dale, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

    OK, so you can drop the God bit, but there’s no escaping the monarchist bit.

    (This is for members of the UK parliament. There isn’t one for kids. Not yet, anyway…)

    Comment: sphagnum – 11. March 2008 @ 11:00 am

  2. Just one question, what do you do when your son in kindergarden is required by state law to recite the pledge every day in school. We are faced with this issue currently and I have to say I hate that he is saying this every day. On the other hand, I don’t know that it is worth it to fight this issue as that essentially makes my kid into an outcast at school since he would either have to sit out every morning or else he would be the kid with “those parents” who make a big deal about little issues.

    So, what to do?

    Comment: ondfly123 – 11. March 2008 @ 11:30 am

  3. There’s no single answer to that — what follows is merely my opinion. Until the courts weigh in for real, I am also unconvinced that fighting it at that age is worthwhile.

    You have to do something of a cost/benefit analysis for these things. If your son were old enough to give his informed consent — if he, in other words, were able to weigh the potential social consequences and choose to act anyway — then I’d say go for it. There’s much to be learned from standing on unpopular but well-informed principle.

    A kindergartener is another matter. They can’t really anticipate and weigh the consequences, so it’s not fair for us to put them in that position, in my humble. Better to simply use the opportunity to talk to the child about it, to voice your discomfort, and to get them thinking about what they are asked to do. Ours is an imperfect world, but they can learn from these imperfections by being a part of them for awhile, then making an informed choice once they are old enough to do so.

    I recommend Stu Tanquist’s essay “Choosing Your Battles” in PBB for further wisdom regarding how and when and whether to fight these battles.

    Comment: Dale – 11. March 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  4. Thanks,

    That is pretty much what we decided to do. We talked to him about it and plan to do so often until he is old enough to decide for himself.

    Comment: ondfly123 – 11. March 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  5. […] McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, gave me one more reason to dislike the pledge of allegiance. Take a gander at the original gesture for saluting the […]

    Pingback: Green Oasis » Sieg Heil! – 11. March 2008 @ 7:26 pm

  6. Philosopher Alonzo Fyfe has been working on an interesting story called Perspective on the Pledge. It was posted in multiple parts on his blog, Atheist Ethicist. There’s a link to the full .pdf version at this entry here.

    Comment: Steelman – 11. March 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. I know I probably sound like a broken record here, but it all seems to come down to whether independence and freedom of thought are valued or not. I’m trying to raise my kids to think for themselves, be compassionate and open, and value self-expression. I am hoping that a side effect of this is resistance to and protection from indoctrination, whether religious or “patriotic”.

    Of course, the one area where I waver from this path is with baseball. My kids have no choice. They are well on their way to being fully indoctrinated into Red Sox Nation and I expect them to have the words to Sweet Caroline memorized by the end of this summer!

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 12. March 2008 @ 1:40 am

  8. I personally went through problems with my son’s school regarding the reciting of the pledge. My son was in 7th grade and he decided that he didn’t want to say the pledge. He had good reasons. The god issue and being forced to proclaim blind loyalty. His homeroom teacher tried to force my son to stand for the pledge. Apparently, she was under the impression that even if the kids don’t have to SAY the pledge, they still must STAND. She threatened to send him to the Vice Principal’s office, if he didn’t stand.

    I am so proud of my son. He picked up his backpack and left the room and went to the VP’s office. He knew from his discussions with me that he is not required to participate in the pledge WHATSOEVER. This includes standing and reciting. My son was “grilled” by the VP. He was asked the reasons why he refuses to participate in saying the pledge. He accused my son of trying to be rebellious and get away with something. He was told that at the very least, he is required to stand. It is school policy, after all.

    All those issues are irrelevant to the fact that it is ILLEGAL for the public schools to punish or threaten to punish any student who refuses to recite the pledge. Aren’t the schools aware of this? It was determined by a case in the 1960’s regarding a Jehovah Witness student who didn’t want to participate in the pledge. Doesn’t the school have lawyers who make sure that their policies do cross over that line?

    My son was sent to the school psychologist who called me and told me that my son was refusing to stand, out of respect, during the pledge. (SCHOOL PSYCOLOGIST, as if my son is “acting out,” or something) I told her that regardless of whether I agree with his decision, he has the right to not participate and not disrupt the others while they say the pledge. I gave her the Federal case where it was decided. That was it. We won.

    I find it disturbing, to say the least, that blind obedience to a flag is still being done in schools. And that the school actually created a “policy” which directly contradicts our constitutional rights (symbolic speech) I’m glad my son had the balls to stand up for his constitutionally protected beliefs, even when he is teased by his peers and intimidated by the so-called authorities in the school.

    Jim says: . . . it all seems to come down to whether independence and freedom of thought are valued or not. I’m trying to raise my kids to think for themselves, be compassionate and open, and value self-expression. I am hoping that a side effect of this is resistance to and protection from indoctrination, whether religious or “patriotic”.

    BINGO. It is the whole concept of being indoctrinated that I abhor.

    Comment: elishajan – 12. March 2008 @ 9:47 am

  9. Wow! You SHOULD be proud! A galling thing to go through, but in a big way, he’s really fortunate. Just THINK of the long-term benefits your son gets from the experience of standing on principle, and doing it so confidently and intelligently! He is operating at the highest level of moral development and will only refine that as he continues to grow.

    As I said above, the world is full of inconsistencies and nonsense, and it always will be. Best for our kids to get the experience of confronting it if they so choose (once they’re old enough, and seventh grade is perfect) and making their own moral choices.

    Comment: Dale – 12. March 2008 @ 10:53 am

  10. Not to be flippant, (maybe just a little) but reciting the 9x times multiplication table every morning might better serve to educate.

    Comment: leslie – 13. March 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  11. reciting the 9x times multiplication table every morning might better serve to educate.

    (Flash forward to children reciting the 9x table in a grade school classroom in 2050, after Congress has its way…)

    “9×11, by the grace of God, is 99. 9×12, by the grace of God, is 108. Now go ye forth and multiply. Amen.”

    Comment: Dale – 13. March 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  12. You are funny.
    Actually, that sounds like how it’s taught in some areas of the ‘us’, presently.

    Comment: leslie – 14. March 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  13. […] then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the […]

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  24. In case anyone else is coming back to this like I am, your video has been deleted. Here’s what I am assuming is another copy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZBTyTWOZCM

    Comment: joley – 24. August 2012 @ 9:07 am

  25. @joley: XOXO!

    Comment: Dale – 24. August 2012 @ 5:32 pm

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