As millions of Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and other festivities, I'll be taking a moment to think about the day in seventh grade when I made a careless decision that would have appalled the Founding Fathers: I revealed my school locker combination to a complete stranger.
How can these two subjects possibly be related? Because the concept of independence has implications in numerous areas of daily life. Right now most public debate is focused on how much power federal agencies need to protect us from terror threats. What doesn't get nearly enough attention is the sad fact that many of the everyday challenges to our personal independence originate with friends and fellow citizens.
I still don't know why that kid in seventh grade was compiling his list of locker combinations. He told me it was all authorized by the vice principal. That was my introduction to one of humanity's oldest recurring characters: the friendly con artist. Before nations existed, I'm sure there were scammers with sly smiles strolling up to the front entrance of flimsy huts and announcing, "I'm in charge of a very important project and your participation is vital!"
All children should be made aware of this hazard at the earliest possible age. To me, good citizenship requires a solid understanding of the Constitution, setting high standards of conduct, and not allowing someone else to manipulate you into violating your own rules.
Defending personal independence can be stressful, but that's exactly how the manipulators want you to feel. One of the near-universal experiences of childhood is the moment when some casual acquaintance tries to enlist you into helping with a nefarious scheme and attempts to overcome your reluctance with the phrase, "Come on. Please? I'll be your friend!"
In addition to peer pressure, personal independence is also under constant assault from advertisers who want to create the impression that anyone who isn't buying a particular item is totally out of sync with the rest of society. The standard opening line in commercials that want to create this anxiety is, "If you're like most people...." Translation: If you're not weird or a complete bumpkin, you should be using our product.
There is no instruction for this aspect of life. We're all doing on-the-job training that never ends. It wasn't until I became a parent that a truly unpleasant scenario came to my attention and caused some bumpy moments among neighborhood relations. The problem occurs when adults ask other people's children (such as my daughter) to make decisions (going to parties, babysitting, boy/girl sleepovers) that should be considered by the parents first.
Luckily I gave up worrying about my reputation long ago. Maintaining your integrity inevitably means declining to follow every new trend and appearing out of touch with mainstream culture. I think the Founding Fathers would agree with me. They knew all about holding unpopular opinions.
So let's celebrate the Founders on July 4th. But after the fireworks are over, just remember that every other box on the calendar is your Personal Independence Day.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.