Kids are curious creatures. From a young age, they want to
know why—why Daddy shaves his face
but Mommy doesn’t, why Grandma wears that little machine in her ear, why the
neighbor kids are allowed to have a trampoline but they’re forbidden from going
With Thanksgiving around the corner, kids may be asking
questions like “Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?” or “When was the first Thanksgiving?”
School, TV and family members may be giving kids conflicting messages. Many
parents are lost trying to explain because of the complicated and often tragic history
between white settlers and Native Americans. Lost between the blunt truth and
the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade fantasy of what Thanksgiving really is, what
is a socially conscious parent to do?
Lucky for you, we've broken conversations down by age group. Think of this as your ultimate "why?" guide for Thanksgiving!
It’s difficult to speak about something confidently to a
child unless you yourself know all the facts, thereby having the luxury to
choose what to include and what to leave out. Typically, a
feast thrown by Governor William Bradford for the Mayflower pilgrims and
the generous Wampanoag people in 1621 is regarded as the historical basis for
the holiday we now celebrate. However, this joyful celebration of the settlers’
first harvest is one of the only positive interactions between invading
Europeans and those who already lived in North America. Responsible discussion
of Thanksgiving and acknowledgement of the genocide perpetrated by white
settlers begins with an understanding of what really happened. History.com
has a great selection of articles and videos, but for a more in-depth
understanding, turn to "Guns, Germs
and Steel" and Howard Zinn’s "A People’s
History of the United States."
Getting your child to understand the nuances of Thanksgiving
history is not going to be a one-shot deal. These conversations need to happen
over a period of years. It’s important to plant the seeds of understanding our
country’s history with your children early on. During Thanksgiving time, talk
about the concept of immigration, and tell them the story of how our country
developed into what it is today. Make sure not to “start history” when white
people arrived. Also, emphasize the
concept of gratefulness and giving thanks. Let your children know that many
cultures around the world have similar celebrations, and take time to learn
together about these holidays.
I interviewed my godfather, David, for this article, mining
his decades of experience as a school psychologist. He recommended introducing
some aspects of cause and effect at this age, and beginning discussions about
what happened to Native Americans as a result of white settlement. Around age
7, children develop mentally to be able to understand symbols and think more
abstractly and outside of their own experience. However, this development won’t
cement until sometime during adolescence. It can help to bring in current
events, like the refugee crisis in Europe (the concept of people fleeing for
freedom like the Pilgrims did) and the protests surrounding the Dakota
Access Pipeline. A good place to start might be to talk to your children
about controversial sports mascot images that depict Native Americans.
As your children become young adults and you continue the
conversation, they may find themselves feeling guilty about America’s past,
especially if your family is white. That’s part of the process. Discussing race
with our children in an attempt to create a more just world is a “no
pain, no gain” endeavor. Let them know that you aren’t talking about these
issues to make them feel bad, only to ensure that they are informed and aware
of our country’s complicated history in order to ensure a future of equality
and justice for our nation.
There is really very little connection between the
historical events of the first Thanksgiving and what we celebrate today. The
reason we celebrate Thanksgiving now is to give thanks, appreciate what we
have, and get together with family to share a table and our love for one another.
So stuff your face with pumpkin pie, enjoy some football and treasure the time
you have with the ones you love. Pass this on to your children. It will be
a family tradition worth passing along.