I TOOK the opportunity recently, while teaching a religious Sunday School class, to go off-topic and gently question a group of 8-year-olds.
"Is the United States at war?" I asked them.
There was a general sense among these largely suburban kids that American soldiers were fighting "over in Iraq."
Next question: "Who are we fighting over there in Iraq?"
Fewer were able to come up with an answer. At best, it was suggested that we were fighting "some evil guy."
"Saddam Hussein?" I offered.
"Yes," a couple of them quickly agreed, "that's him."
"Did any of you know that he was captured three-and-a-half years ago?" I said. Near silence.
To complete the inquiry, I asked, "Why then are we still fighting?" Only silence.
It would be so easy to blame the parents entirely for their ignorance. But that would only go so far (and, after all, to be fair to myself, one of the kids was my own).
Of course, as a parent, I readily accept that certain teachings are my responsibility. To begin with, there's politeness (in this regard, I must say, my wife and I have been largely successful). Table manners are a different story (regrettably, I confess, much work remains to be done).
With these basics out of the way, a few of the really big parenting functions remain, such as encouraging their natural sense of curiosity, promoting in them a sense of generosity, and constantly exposing them to great books and great music.
But the one thing that I can't figure out how to teach my own kids, let alone a class of them, is about what they all should know by now but, to a person, don't: national sacrifice.
Asking a generation of children to sacrifice for a common good is a lesson in our country that can only come from the White House. How easy and appropriate (and necessary) it was for the President after 9/11 to ask every one of us, including our children, to sacrifice for a greater good.
Not only would we adults feel better about ourselves - no small thing in this great age of vanity - and be more personally vested in foreign policy, our children would also learn in the best possible way that there is indeed something larger than themselves and their immediate wants.
But instead it is our military alone which remains in a state of seemingly never-ending war while the rest of us here at home are left to complain about nothing more important than the gallon price of gas.
In 1941, Winston Churchill told his countrymen the following: "Out of depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind."
When he said this, England had been at war for 22 months. Nearly four years remained.
In April, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt said this: "But there is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States - every man, woman, and child - is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war.
"That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, in our daily tasks. Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary, not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure during the war and after the war."
To these great leaders, national sacrifice was inseparable from the very notion of success. Indeed, the worthiness of the task was understood and felt in the individual's sacrifice multiplied a million-fold.
A belated thank you, then, to FDR, for giving us these words:
"When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no sacrifice."
No such words have been given to our children. Only silence.
Samuel Z. Kaplan is a Toledo attorney.