What does it mean to be an American? In a recent Gallup Youth Survey*, Gallup posed this question to U.S. teens (aged 13 to 17). Asked on an open-ended basis, the question allowed respondents to offer whatever answer came to mind. While some people might expect disinterested replies, teens' responses reveal a deep and sincere appreciation of the implications of their status as Americans.
Teens frequently mentioned freedom, or some aspect of it, in their responses. One 17-year-old boy said being an American means having "freedom to choose what school I want to attend, what church I want to go to, study what I am interested in, travel freely throughout this country without any restrictions, listen to any radio or TV stations that I want to, and achieve my career and educational goals ... without any influence from any government or military group." A 15-year-old boy said, "Being an American means being proud of my country and defending our right to free speech and the freedom to be who we are." He ended his comments dramatically: "I will defend my right to be free to the death."
Teens Don't Have to Agree With the Government
The war in Iraq has raised many questions about the meaning of patriotism. However, some teens stressed that being American does not mean one has to agree with all the government's actions. A 16-year-old girl said, "Being an American is just caring about the good of America. It doesn't mean agreeing with everything the government does, but at the same time you have to agree with the most core values … freedom to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, speech, etc." A 17-year-old boy said, "It means having citizenship in the United States. It doesn't matter if you burn flags or join the armed forces, if you have citizenship you are American."
Many Note Freedoms and Welcome Diversity
The United States, by virtue of its founding principles, is a nation of diverse religions, cultures, races, and ethnicities. A 16-year-old girl said that being an American means being "able to have our own ideas and beliefs, and being able to express [them], along with the freedom of being an individual who is different from everyone." A 14-year-old girl gave this response: "I think to be an American means accepting others, treating everyone equally, being open to new ideas and thoughts, understanding and appreciating your freedom, and not taking what your ancestors did for granted."
Criticism and Apathy
A few teens gave apathetic answers, and some were notably critical. But such downbeat responses were rare. "To be an American is to be blind to [the] world's problems, and to consume its resources," said one 16-year-old boy. A 16-year-old girl commented, "I am grateful to be in a country with so many freedoms. I just don't like how high-headed America is and how we may be a little more headstrong than we can handle."
An Open Door to the Future
A common theme in the replies is that being an American and having freedom opens the door to great opportunities. One 13-year-old boy said it means "having the freedom to make choices in my life -- I can be as successful or unsuccessful as I want to be." A 14-year-old girl said to be an American is "to have freedom. To be able to dream and try to be anything you want … My parents taught me to always do my best and to always have hope, even if you get knocked down over and over. In America, you have the right to always get up!"
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly in these uncertain times, teens tend to show deep appreciation of what it means to be American. While writing about freedoms, they also note citizens' obligations. Negative and cynical voices are rarely heard. One 17-year-old girl reflected: "…we are a group of people who have dreams and live in a place where we have the chance to fulfill them." Another 16-year-old simply said it means "being part of a nation that tries to be good."
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 517 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.