Even before my twins were born, I looked forward to sharing holidays with them. The traditions, the family time, the special observances—holidays are some of the best days of the year.
They reveal the sense of wonder that we parents long ago forgot. Everything is new to kids, and watching them discover the themes of freedom, joy, bravery, and thanksgiving is a joy.
However, some holidays come with their own challenges, and Independence Day offers a special one.
The first time we watched fireworks with my girls, we sat in a big field with several other families and an army of kids. The older kids could hardly contain their excitement, but some of the younger ones hid their faces in their parents’ shoulders the whole time, and some even cried.
The next year, our children were among those who cried. My husband isn’t a big fireworks fan, but I love them—mostly thanks to fond memories of day-long picnics at Gasworks Park in Seattle to secure prime seats for the fireworks on Puget Sound. So my children’s fright helped me remember how scary and wonderful the Fourth of July was for me as a child and prompted me to learn how to help them cope so they could enjoy the day too.
Kids experience the holidays primarily through their senses, explained Cindy Dell Clark, associate professor of anthropology at the Rutgers University.
Adults have forgotten that first sensorial experience and have learned to honor themes of independence and sacrifice through social experience, but for kids the senses teach them first about those themes.
The very nature of the way we celebrate educates our kids about Independence Day, Clark said. It’s the main holiday of summer vacation, the embodiment of freedom. We fly our flags and put on scary, beautiful shows that teach kids how to overcome fear and develop stoicism and bravery.
The sudden flashes and booms of fireworks trigger kids’ startle reflex, especially at night, which makes them cry and hide. But adults rarely leave—we tell the kids everything is fine and encourage them to stick it out.
“Teaching children to be stoic when scared prepares them for a ritual of adulthood,” Clark said. “Children can be terrified but they don’t tell anyone because the adults are having fun. One of the first things kids explain in interviews is that fireworks are scary and pretty. It’s shock and awe.”
“The need to be free, the need to overcome fear, and particularly post 9/11, that freedom requires military sacrifice, are all sensorial experiences that reinforce the theme of the holiday,” Clark said.
But as I learned at my girls’ first fireworks show, it’s one thing to theorize about fear and teaching young kids courage, it’s another to actually sit through a fireworks show with them. So how can parents help kids cope with the startle reflex and the fear that comes with the celebration?
Communication is key, psychologists told NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth. It can be helpful to tell kids ahead of time what to expect from the evening, including how many people will be present, what the fireworks will be like, and that they will be close to family, said Jacqueline Hood, PhD, licensed psychologist and specialist in child and adolescent psychology.
It also helps to talk to your kids about their specific fears, whether it’s the noise, the lights, or the fear of losing parents in the crowd, so you can help them have a plan. Earplugs, a comfort blanket, a strategy for staying close to each other—these can help kids feel prepared to deal with their fears. Another helpful strategy Hood suggested is to have your children bring something comforting from home so they feel secure.
This year, my kids (and their stuffed animals) will be on my lap ready to enjoy the show. And I hope to see, hear, taste, and feel the day the way they do.