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Explaining Thanksgiving to Kids Can Be Freakin' Hard

Photograph by Twenty20

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 near one.

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!

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But First, Know Your History

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."

Ages 0-6

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.

Ages 7-13

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.

Ages 14+

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.

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No, Thanksgiving Is Not “Ruined”

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.

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