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By Carey Wallace
July 6, 2015

From the way the Fourth of July gets celebrated today, a visitor from space might think it’s mostly in praise of fireworks and barbecue. If your weekend left you feeling vaguely like your kids may have missed the point of the holiday, it’s not too late to catch them up.

Elementary age kids, says Joanne Freeman, professor of History and American Studies at Yale, may be interested to think about how the Declaration of Independence was made. “People were thinking through a decision and then making a choice,” Freeman says. “They talked and listened to each other. That’s what’s supposed to be at the heart of the government.” Parents can get a conversation started by asking kids to think about what kind of problems they’d like to solve together—and what are the best ways to talk and listen to each other.

Middle school kids may be interested to know that there were actually many declarations of independence. Freeman points to Pauline Maier’s work in American Scripture, which revealed that groups across the colonies were debating independence and issuing their own statements and resolutions long before the declaration of independence we know today. Why is that important? Because independence was a process, and happened in community, says Freeman. “I want to make sure that people get beyond the idea of 30 guys in a room,” she says. “This was a colony-wide debate. Everyone was thinking and talking about it.” Parents can start a conversation by asking kids what kinds of topics their friends are currently debating, and encouraging them to share their own thoughts.

High school kids, Freeman says, can begin to think about how much work was left undone by the Declaration of Independence. It didn’t offer freedom to people living in slavery or to Native Americans. And in some states, women actually lost the right to vote as the Constitution was written. But, Freeman says, high school kids may also be inspired by the fact that “no one knew what was going on” during the Revolutionary period. Just like today, “they were scared about the outcome.” Knowing that can give kids hope that they’re capable of doing important things, despite the days when they feel uncertain about the future. Parents can open conversations by asking high school kids what changes they’d still like to see in the world, and what changes they might want to be a part of.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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