What Independence Day Means to Me :: A Letter to My Son


Dear Will,

Tomorrow is Independence Day, our country’s birthday. Every year I try to explain to you, in terms you can understand, what this day means. But so far all you seem to understand is that it means fireworks that make you cover your ears and a day off work for Daddy. Which is sort of the bitter and the sweet of the preschooler experience all in one.

fireworks 3
Fireworks are part of the day, but they’re not the only part.

By the time you can understand why it matters that 56 people signed a piece of paper back in 1776, you’ll be a too-cool teenager and you won’t want to listen to my life lessons. So you’ll have to discover it for yourself, as all of us do.

But if I could make you understand why this day is so important, here is what I would say:

America is the place where things happen that no one thought possible. Some of the tallest buildings in the world. A man on the moon. A computer the size of a small house, and one that can fit in your palm. A black man as president, a woman as a major-party vice presidential candidate. Northwestern winning the Rose Bowl (okay, not yet).

This country isn’t perfect. In our two-century history, we’ve made mistakes — a lot of them. We have an unfortunate history of treating certain groups of people badly, starting pretty much from Day One. We’ve elected some pretty bad leaders (though you’ll find that we’re split down the middle on which ones were the bad ones), and in some cases we bear the burdens of their decisions for years. We do a lot of shouting when we disagree, and lately we seem to shout all the time.

But there’s the thing: We keep trying.

One of the most famous lines in the Declaration of Independence, that piece of paper signed 238 years ago, is this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”  It was revolutionary (haha) at the time; but they left a few people out. Me, for example, and your grandmothers and your aunts and most of your cousins. And your friend Jake, and Daddy’s coworker John, because they’re black. For that matter, when Daddy’s and my families came to this country, they wouldn’t have been considered “equal,” either. My family members were Irish, Catholic and poor; Daddy’s were Scotch-Irish, we think, so they were slightly better off, but not by much.

Our flag changed as our country did, becoming more star-spangled over time.

So that “all men (make that educated, landowning white men, and we do mean men) are created equal” thing? Well, it was a first draft for what our country would become. A second draft, actually, since the British version involved a king on one continent and his subjects on the other. If the Declaration didn’t actually recognize everyone’s equality, at least it got all the parties on the same land mass. So, you know, progress.

The point is, though, that we kept on editing. In fact, we built the means for editing into our most important document. Right there in the Constitution, it tells us how to make changes.

America is a work in progress. Every time we think we’re doing pretty well, it turns out we can do better. And we all get to decide what it means to “do better.”

My sweet boy, this country isn’t perfect. But through blood and sweat and tears — through diplomacy and compromise — through conversation and compassion — we are improving every day. Things will happen in your lifetime, or your children’s, that no one would think possible today. A man on Mars. A woman in the White House. Northwestern winning the Rose Bowl (really, I’m not giving up hope on that one).

So tomorrow we’ll enjoy an extra day with Daddy, and we’ll watch fireworks with our hands over our ears. I’ll try to explain to you what this day means, and you probably won’t understand what I’m trying to say. But that’s okay. Next year, I’ll do better.

After all, that’s the American way.

What do you want your children to know about being an American? Tell us in the comments.

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As a writer and editor, Marian Cowhig Owen made her living crafting – or at least striving for – perfect prose. But motherhood taught her quickly that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. It’s a lesson she’s learning over and over every day. A Midwesterner by birth, Marian lived in North Carolina for 14 years before her husband’s job brought the family to Columbia in fall 2013. She and her preschooler have quickly found new favorite haunts in the Midlands, including Saluda Shoals Park, EdVenture and the Irmo branch library. In her spare time, this NPR junkie also sings, bakes and does needlework. She’s recently taken up running, with an eye toward her first 5K race in the fall. And as for that perfection she’s been seeking? Her Pinterest boards are very carefully curated.


  1. This was great! Really enjoyed it! I’ve also thought to myself how do I explain this day to my children…and yes you are right…they will discover the true meaning of this day in their own way and time!

    Thanks for sharing!


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