How to Explain Memorial Day to Kids, Plus 5 Traditions to Start

Memorial Day is more than just a day off from school. Experts share age-appropriate ways to help your kids understand what Memorial Day honors and why it's so important.

Memorial Day tends to mean "fun" to children and even some adults. Kids usually get a day off from school; Some adults have the day off of work and use the time to have barbecues or head to the beach. In some ways, Memorial Day often serves as the unofficial "kick-off" to summer fun that lies ahead.

But Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May, has a much more somber meaning. The federal holiday is a way to honor military members who died in the line of duty. And while that can certainly be a tough topic to discuss, experts say it's still a good idea to explain the significance of Memorial Day to kids.

"It's important for them to understand that we aren't just taking a day off from school," says Becky Reback, head of parent/family coaching at Evolved Education in New York City. "The people we are honoring were moms, dads, brothers, and sisters, just like we are."

But explaining Memorial Day requires delving into difficult topics like death. "Parents shy away from that because they think it will scare them, but it doesn't," says Reback. "Kids are afraid of what they don't understand. If they understand something, it empowers them."

Here are some age-appropriate ways to explain Memorial Day to your kids and ways families can recognize the day.

Where to Begin Explaining Memorial Day to Kids

First, when explaining what Memorial Day is, experts suggest approaching the topic from your individual child's perspective. Certain children may be able to grasp more information than others, and some may know more about Memorial Day than you think. How do you find out where your kid is? Easy: You can ask.

"Ask, 'What do you know about this day?'" suggests Karen Aronian, Ed.D., a New York-based parenting and education expert. "Many of them are in school…and some schools are more transparent about how they share holidays than others."

Generally speaking, Reback and Dr. Aronian agree that adults can be more straightforward with teens about the meaning of Memorial Day. You can simply say that it's a day to honor U.S. military members who died in the line of duty. "Go ahead and use those terms because they know what they mean," says Reback.

But kids ages 3 to 7 probably don't have context. They'll likely need parents to explain the meaning of Memorial Day in simpler terms. Reback says defining the word "memorial" helps give kids a foundation to grasp what "Memorial Day" means. She suggests using the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary, which provides clear and concise definitions. It defines "memorial" as "something (such as a monument or ceremony) that honors a person who has died or serves as a reminder of an event in which many people have died."

After reading this definition to your child, Reback suggests giving them an example of a memorial they've seen before to help them understand. "If there is a monument in a local park, point that out," says Reback. "Maybe they have a rock in the backyard that remembers a pet who died. That's a memorial, too."

Then, Reback recommends bringing the conversation full circle. "Tell them, 'On Memorial Day, we honor, which really means to celebrate and remember, the Americans who died in wars…America chose to fight in. Some people chose to fight for our county. They died in the war, and we remember them,'" she says.

And you can expand on the topic of Memorial Day with kids ages 7 to 12 who may be interested in and able to grasp the history of the holiday.

An image of American flags.
Getty Images.

What Does Memorial Day Celebrate?

According to the History Channel, Memorial Day started as Decoration Day in the 1860s to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. Some children may not have learned about the Civil War, so you may have to start your Memorial Day explanation by going back to the beginning.

You can ask your child if they know what the Civil War was. If they haven't learned about it yet, Reback suggests telling them a civil war occurs "between groups of people in the same country. In America, that was between the north part of the country and the south part of the country."

Reback says you can continue with something like, "Family members used to go to the graves of their family members…who died in the war and decorated them with flowers. Maybe they drew a picture."

It's OK to also let the child know that more conflicts happened, like World War I and World War II. "You can say, '[Those wars] happened between so many people, and so many soldiers died," Reback recommends. "We changed it from Decoration Day to Memorial Day so we could honor more soldiers and not just those who died in the Civil War."

At first, Memorial Day always fell on May 30. But Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, establishing the holiday would always fall on the last Monday in May. It became a federal holiday in 1971 under President Richard Nixon.

Always make sure to reinforce the meaning of the holiday at the end of the discussion. "Say, 'Today, we take a day on the last Monday in May to pause and do something special to remember them,'" says Reback.

5 Memorial Day Traditions to Start With Your Kids

Once you have explained the importance of the day, you may be looking for some ways you can honor Memorial Day together as a family. Aside from an annual barbecue, there are plenty of ways to celebrate Memorial Day with your kids that tie back to the meaning of the holiday. Here are a few ideas.

1. Take a moment of silence.

Your child knows Memorial Day is a day of remembrance. Every year at 3 p.m., the nation observes a national moment of silence. Dr. Aronian does this with her children. "I set my phone and make sure they are nearby so we can have that moment together," says Dr. Aronian.

2. Lay (or grow) flowers.

Flowers are a tangible way to pay tribute to those lost. "If they have a family member or friend who died, you can put flowers on the grave," says Reback. "If they don't, you can plant flowers in your yard or put one in the window."

3. Show support.

Though soldiers died, many left family members behind, including children. Nonprofits like The Gary Sinise Foundation and America's Gold Star Families help support them. Perhaps you and your family can pool together some money or raise funds with a lemonade stand to send to them. "That's a beautiful way to reach out and do whatever you can do to support these families," says Dr. Aronian.

4. Get crafty.

You may already have an American flag to put outside your home. But if your kid loves arts and craft projects, Reback recommends making an extra one and displaying it, perhaps at your family picnic.

"Reuse an Amazon box or get a piece of cardboard," she explains. "Paint it white, and put a blue square in the corner. Use red and white pipe cleaners to make the stripes and cotton balls for the stars."

You could also whip up a flowery flag headpiece to wear or display at a family gathering.

5. Head to your local parade (or DIY).

Depending on where you live, Memorial Day parades may be an ongoing tradition. Dr. Aronian says it can be fun to attend it if you're comfortable. If there isn't a parade in your town or large crowds aren't your thing, that's OK. "You can make your own parade with family or friends," says Reback. "You can have toy drums or play another instrument." Or, browse online for a virtual parade that your family can still watch and enjoy together.

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