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Teaching Kids the History of Thanksgiving

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Teaching history to young children can be a pretty thorny topic. (Columbus Day, anyone?) Even in the (many) years since I started school and began learning American history, we’ve either learned a lot more about some of the touchstone stories of our history, or we’ve started admitting/acknowledging a lot more of the negative parts of those stories. And teaching history gets even more challenging when the stories we’re talking about intersect with current events, like the “first Thanksgiving” and the ongoing protest of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe (and others) over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. It’s a bit difficult to propagate the narrative of the “friendly Indians” who helped the Pilgrims when we’re currently confronting an outcome of that very broken relationship.


So how do we talk about our history in an age-appropriate way that allows us to acknowledge the bad stuff along with the good?

Tell the story. The History Channel’s website has a great factual summary of how the first Thanksgiving went down. It includes the facts that it was probably not called “Thanksgiving,” and was not religious, instead being more of a harvest feast. The story in a nutshell: members of the Abenaki and Pawtuxet tribes did assist the English colonists with learning how to survive off the land and with forging an alliance with another local tribe: the Wampanoag. That fall, upon a successful corn harvest, the colonists held a three-day feast and invited a group of their Native American allies. You can even go on to talk about the modern history of Thanksgiving and how it became the celebration we know today.

Talk about the food. The Native Americans and English colonists did not eat domesticated turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. What did they really eat? Waterfowl (probably goose, duck, passenger pigeon, and/or swan), venison, corn (likely in bread or porridge form), possibly wild turkey, shellfish, local nuts, and squash. They probably drank water. With a dwindling if not completely used up supply of sugar, sweets were not on the menu. If you want to have some real fun, you can add a 17th century-inspired dish or two to your table.

Squash stereotypes. Don’t let any of the characters in the story become caricatures or stereotypes. Explore what historically accurate clothing for the Wampanoag and Pilgrims would have looked like. Take time to learn about and share Native American culture; my kindergartener is really excited to be reading a compilation of Native American stories with her dad right now. When you see stereotypical or inaccurate images while you’re out and about, have a teachable moment and a discussion about what’s wrong with the picture.

Introduce the idea that we don’t always get along. Although the “first Thanksgiving” is a positive story, what with the Native Americans welcoming the English newcomers and teaching them how to survive in this new-to-them land followed by the Pilgrims’ expression of gratitude in sharing their harvest feast and all, we know that the relationship between colonists and the native people of America has not exactly been full of these shiny, happy moments. It’s okay to acknowledge that. With young children, you can share with them that that Native Americans and Pilgrims didn’t always get along. To make it a little more concrete, ask your child how they would feel if a stranger suddenly showed up and decided to build a house in their backyard and live there. It’s not a direct parallel, but it will get your child thinking and learning about empathy.

Difficult conversations are…well…exactly that: difficult. Addressing our full history can be, too. But having those conversations at age-appropriate levels helps us raise children who are thoughtful and empathetic—and who know that we’re always around when they have a tough topic they want to talk about. Remember that you don’t need all the answers. You can look things up together or even tell your child that you need to gather more information or need more time to think about your answer and you’ll get back to them. (Be sure you do get back to them!) You can do this!

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