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The good guys usually win

When Netflix recently asked me to take a customer service survey about what suggested material I felt was too mature for my 5 year old son, I felt a little guilty clicking on many of the boxes. I'm sure they're data sampling and will adjust for outliers to a happy medium. And it's not that I'm in favor of censorship or ruling content is "inappropriate for children." In fact, my personal beliefs are very much the opposite. I think we dumb down childhood trying to artificially preserve perceived innocence. But this is something else. You see, my son is a scaredy cat.

Oh, he'll talk a big game of robots and loud, roaring rockets. My daughter, in contrast, loves a good fright. She always wants to keep going when he has long since asked to turn off a movie. It's always my son who will tap out first at something being too scary. But it's brought up some interesting conversations and philosophical issues lately.

I've gotten everything from pointed questions about whether bad guys ever win to a nuanced thesis about why truly evil villains make heroes more heroic. We had a chat in the car the other day about story structures (protagonist vs antagonist) and themes that occur even in adult storytelling...the good guys usually win there, too. While reassuring both children that heroes usually win in stories for children and that the doubt about whether they actually will leads to tighter, better reading/watching.

It was a wonderful discussion about story structure and a little childhood psychology all in one. I could see in their questioning the grasping for certainty, order, and patterns that makes up pretty much any basic developmental psychology class. It was downright Freudian watching my own kids working through stereotypical stages of growth where so much of the "growing up" is what happens between their ears rather than on a height/weight chart.

So all this is backstory for our visit to a museum on Friday. As I've mentioned before, we don't shield the kids from the news and current events, per se. We try to adapt whatever is being said in terms and vocabulary they can wrap their minds around. But the subject matter we're honest about when it comes to everything from crime and global affairs to science debates and, yes, history.

If you've never been to Cantigny in Chicago's western suburbs, it's an amazing place. The former estate of the man who once owned the Chicago Tribune, it's got massive gardens and grounds, a visitors center, mansion, and where we spent most of our time--the 1st Division Museum.

Once you're on the grounds, the museum is free including a large "tank park" with authentic US battle vehicles from WWI to present. There's even a Vietnam-era helicopter. And it's a weird teaching moment if you're a parent who doesn't shy away from these topics. Kids asking "what is this for?" as you try to explain what deadly machines of destruction did and why. Mama observed, too, that there were large groups of tourists from Asia on the property that day and what a weird feeling it is that our nation previously used these death machines against many of their people. Yet here we all are, trying to appreciate history.

Inside the museum, a warning for truly young kids...the exhibits can be graphic and realistic. Uniformed mannequins from different military eras guard the entrance to the main exhibit hall and the linear layout begins with the story of the 1st Division coming into service during WWI. (They've served in nearly every major American campaign since.) You walk into trenches and will see gas masks, ammunition storage, etc.. It's like this throughout...a movie with actual D-Day footage takes place on the inside of an assault boat. When the screen rises at the end, you walk out onto a beachhead at Normandy complete with barbed wire and booby traps. Farther in, you'll see a captured Nazi battle flag, the door from a prison cell at Nuremberg, and a huge (very cool) photo of US military personnel individually guarding each German on trial against suicide. The next large room is made to look like the jungles of Vietnam with a lengthy movie of US battle strategy during that conflict. (Yours truly got a bit teary-eyed at this one, I'll admit.)

On one hand, we weren't sure we should have brought the kids as it was a little too intense for a shy 5 year old. Though my 3 year old daredevil was oblivious. They loved climbing on the static tanks, but the atmosphere inside was pretty intense. You could see them searching for comprehension, but in a way that made it the perfect place to visit over the long July 4th weekend. In some ways, history makes a lot more sense when you explain it for a 5 year old. It's more tragic, more naive, more well-meaning, more stupid about unforeseen consequences. Some of the "leave a few troops behind after withdrawl" nonsense from Vietnam we'd be doomed to hear again in current events in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance.

Anyway, the heart of this post is really about interpreting history for kids. Especially warfare. It's on one hand big, abstract, and distant. On another, it's disquieting, incomprehensible, and easy to understand. Just like there are mean kids and friendly kids, sharing and fairness, the military presents us with a genuine opportunity to talk about sacrifice, morality, and non-violent conflict resolution. I say this as a mostly-pacifist...Take your kids to a military museum and let them see the gruesome reality. You'll learn something, too. Not just about the content but about them and humanity.

I could go on and on about this topic...especially in the wake of our ongoing cultural debate about whether items from the former Confederacy are ever appropriate. Food for thought, the helicopter that was on display had the Rebel Flag on it along with an excellent context display about the official policy which ended such vehicle paintings in the late-1960's. Plus info on how various members of the military felt about the flag from hatred to pride.

A good museum should make us all think carefully about what the content inside means. On that, I highly recommend the 1st Division Museum.






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