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Footsteps stomped along the parade route. Red, white, and blue flags waived in the air. The marchers, whipped into a frenzy by the parade organizers, started chanting “USA! USA! USA!” It wasn’t long before the crowd joined in. It was a full-on display of American patriotism. And it was perpetrated by my 5 year-old daughter Grace and the infant to pre-K kids of her day care.

As I clapped and chanted with the jingoistic babies and toddlers, I thought, “What do I tell my daughter if she asks me why we celebrate America?” It wasn’t always a tough question, but these days, it feels more and more challenging.

A political environment fraught with problems. Immigrants in cages at our borders. Propaganda news networks. The criminalization of women’s health. Military parades on the streets of the nation’s Capitol. This wasn’t the same vision of America I had as a kid.

So what do I tell her about the Fourth of July?

I will tell her that being born in America (specifically Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C.) was extremely lucky. But within that luck you have a responsibility to uphold a higher moral standard.

Being American means that you speak truth to power.

You look out for the little guy, not just the people at the top. Whether it’s the Boston Tea Party standing up to British rule or the U.S. Women’s National Team demanding equal pay for their exceptional play, when Americans see injustice they speak up.

Being American means valuing diversity and tolerance.

Our country was formed as a melting pot of different cultures working together towards the pursuit of happiness.   Whether it’s Día de Los Muertos in the movie Coco or a Lunar New Year parade on Creative Galaxy, we celebrate all cultures. In the end, there’s more that makes us the same than makes us different.

Being American means pushing out of your comfort zone.

Going on adventures. Taking what you believe into the world testing whether it is true. It’s Sacajawea, Lewis, and Clark exploring uncharted America to arrive at the Pacific Ocean. It’s Sally Ride traveling into space. Americans have an openness to change and growth.

Finally, being American means you have a chance to be anything you want. And more importantly, the option to decide what you want to be.

As Americans, we are given the liberty to be true to ourselves. We’re not born into a story; we get to write our own narrative.

Barack Obama came from an ordinary family and was elected President of the United States. Fred Rogers chose to stay in his neighborhood and inspired generations of kids to be kind. Now, choice doesn’t mean you always get what you want. It doesn’t mean that the road there is equal for all Americans. But it means that—at the very least—you have a chance to be what you want to be.

This morning I sat Grace down to tell her what being an American means. After taking 5 minutes to explain the words “responsibility,” “uphold,” “moral,” and “standard,” Grace stopped me and said, “I get it Daddy” and walked away.

It seems these ideals might be less exciting to a 5 year-old than flags and fireworks. I guess it’s my responsibility as an American and a father to not just talk about them but to live them.

Cal James

Cal James is an author, improviser, filmmaker, and entrepreneur. His memoir, “I Guarantee You Love, Fame and Legacy” follows his journey through self-realization as a comedian.

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