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That Time My Kid Got 'The Bad Buys' All Wrong

I recently sat down with my 3-year-old son to watch "The Mayflower Voyagers," a classic though oft-forgotten Peanuts cartoon that tells the story of the first Thanksgiving. I hadn't seen the show in years. Maybe even decades. It certainly isn't the sort of cultural touchstone that "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" are for me. Nonetheless, I was willing to give it a try to sate my kid's desire for all the Charlie Brown-themed shows he could watch.

My son and I watched Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang navigate the "New World" and the lives of the Pilgrims and Native Americans. At one point he suddenly exclaimed, "I don't want those bad guys stealing my French fries!"

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"Um, what bad guys?" I asked him.

I didn't know exactly what he was going to say, but I had a good idea. I kind of dreaded his response.

"Those guys," he said, pointing to the television. "The ones who the guys with the guns are chasing. Those guys, with the feathers on their heads. They're bad, right Mommy?"

"Just as I thought," I said to myself. "The Native Americans."

'Why do you think the Native Americans are bad guys?' I asked my son.

I did what many panicked culturally and historically sensitive parents have done before me: I started rambling.

"Actually, those guys with the guns are kind of bad guys. They didn't treat the Native Americans very well. And…"

"Who are the Native Americans?" my son asked.

"They're … they're the guys with the feathers on their heads," I said. "And many of them don't like the name 'Indian.' 'Native American' is a better way to talk about them. And lots of people like the Pilgrims gave them blankets that made them sick. And then one of our presidents made them walk for a long, long way, far away from their homes, and thousands of them died along their journey. It's really just another chapter in the horrors of colonialism!"

That's right. I actually used that phrase—"the horrors of colonialism"—in front of my preschool-aged child. I might as well have spoken a foreign language to him. Honestly, he probably didn't understand anything I said after "the guys with the feathers on their heads."

I took a deep breath and tried to get hold of my own narrative.

"Why do you think the Native Americans are bad guys?" I asked my son.

"Because those guys with the guns are scared of them!"

"But why are they scared of them?"

He didn't really have an answer for this question.

"Do you think it's because they didn't take the time to know them?" I asked.

As Charlie Brown himself would say, 'Oh, brother.'

He thought for a moment. He never really responded to this question either. But I could see by the way he narrowed his eyes and scrunched his face that he was thinking about my question. To be truthful, I wasn't really ever looking for a response in the first place either. Instead, I was just looking to get the wheels turning. To get him started on the path of questioning the stories and portrayals and narratives that he now receives, and that he will receive, all throughout his life.

If I can't protect my kids from all the whitewashed histories in the world, at least I can help teach them to become better critical thinkers.

"When we don't take the time to get to know people," I told my son, "we can end up treating them very badly. And that's what many of the Pilgrims did to the Native Americans."

I left it at that.

At this point in the cartoon, the Pilgrims had befriended Samoset and Squanto and Massasoit. They were getting ready to eat turkey and pie—another historical inaccuracy, but I was picking my battles by now—and everyone was happy.

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That's when I caught the exact words that Samoset was saying to Charlie, Lucy and the others.

"Nice English fur traders teach me speak," he tells the adorably drawn children in front of him.

Literally. Those are the exact words that the character says.

As Charlie Brown himself would say, "Oh, brother."

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