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How to honor the real story of Thanksgiving with kids

by Meghan Fitzgerald

In the midst of preparing for a family feast each year, we've also wrestled with how to talk to our kids about Thanksgiving. We want our children to learn from and do their part in changing the inequality in their world, and perpetuating the Thanksgiving story we were taught in elementary school runs squarely at odds with that mission. 

But, it can be hard to know how and when to start having the true Thanksgiving conversation with kids. First, we don't need to nail this by the time the turkey hits the table. This is ongoing, all year round and important work. To follow are a few ideas and resources that have helped and are still helping us to lay a foundation that, we hope, will help them respect and respond to the real history in a way that supports a better future.

Focus on gratitude more than history. For many years, we have focused our Thanksgiving on being thankful for our family, our health, our earth, and whatever else feels authentic to our kids. We engage in rituals like building a tree of thanks to make this even more concrete for them, and fun for us. This has extended far beyond Thanksgiving for us as well, helping us use simple rituals to develop a gratitude practice as a family.

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Build a foundation of knowing and respecting Native peoples. Teach children real stories and truths about native and indigenous people, both from the past and the present. The more our children can be curious and aware about people for their strengths and rich history, the more they will push back on stereotypes and absorb the real history in a way that makes them compelled to act. Here are a few easy ways to do this, even with very young children:

  • Learn about the people who live or used to live on the land in your area. Use an app like native-land.ca to find out which people live/lived and which languages are/were spoken where you live. Search for “native people from {city, state or region}” or “indigenous people from {city, state or region}. Then, look for historically accurate accounts of how those people thrived, being aware of the limitations of the perspective of whomever has created them.
  • As you are walking in a forest or along a river in an area, share something you’ve learned about how those people lived and what made them special as a group or society.  
  • Read books that help children come to know about Native peoples and prepares them to push back against stereotypes. Thanks to embracerace.org and Debbie Reese, we’ve learned how to find books written and illustrated by Native people. We’ve also learned to how to pick books that are about specific tribes or Native people, avoiding the kind of generalizations that lead to stereotypes.
  • Read more from Indigenous Vision about how to build inclusive communities and strong indigenous youth. 

Question the story together. When you feel your kids are ready, work with them to question and point out the mismatches between true history and the Thanksgiving Story. To start:

  • Get to know the full story yourself. PBS Kids offers wonderful resources for parents and educators on how to approach Thanksgiving with authenticity and to better understand for ourselves the history of the people we call pilgrims, their interaction with Wampanoag people, and the history of the holiday we’ve come to know as Thanksgiving. 
  • Don't be afraid to share with children that there is more to the story, and that the story is over simplified and even hurtful to whole groups of people and the allies of those people. Although there was a feast between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, it happened during a time of terrible cruelty and unthinkable loss to the Wampanoag. This truth need not undermine our practice of feasting and sharing gratitude, but it can and should help children learn to question history and be more attuned to inequality and injustice—two things our children need!
  • This New York Times article has helped us use both age-appropriate resources and inquiry to start engaging our kids in conversation about Thanksgiving. For example, try to help kids ask who is telling the story and what is their perspective? How is this story different from other accounts and facts that we now know? 

We cannot change history, but we can make our children alert to who is telling and what needs to be told about the story–it’s the only way our kids will learn to do their part to make sure better stories are written in their time.

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