How to Teach Your Kids About Thanksgiving

Teaching Thanksgiving to children is as much about understanding history as it is about exploring what it means to give thanks.

While tutoring elementary and middle school students this past week, I had several meaningful discussions about Thanksgiving.

What I learned from these conversations made me think about different ways we can teach kids about the holiday. Here are some ideas that you can implement at home:

Talk About the History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day commemorates a 1621 winter harvest in Plymouth, Massachusetts during which the Puritans invited members of the Wampanoag nation, with whom Puritan leader William Bradford had recently signed a peace treaty, to have a meal together.

The anecdote of this peaceable dinner, while pleasant, leaves out a great deal of history. Children should know that the holiday is intertwined with the legacy of European colonization. As one second-grader astutely noted during our tutoring session: “The Europeans came and traded with the American Indians. But they brought disease. No one had rats until the Europeans came."

Thanksgiving also came into being within a larger context of slavery and conquest. By 1619, the Dutch had begun to transport men and women from West Africa and sell them into slavery. These people, taken involuntarily from their homes, were the first African Americans in the New World.

In 1623, the Dutch West India Company was formed expressly to expedite trade and to colonize the New World. What we now call Manhattan was “bought” by Peter Minuit from local American Indians for what amounts to sixty guilders, or one and a half pounds of silver. The concept of owning and buying land was a European invention — foreign to contemporary American Indians. It is likely that both sides of this “deal” understood what was taking place in vastly different ways.

How to Implement These Lessons at Home:

  • Have a discussion: Talk about the larger historical context of the winter harvest that we are so familiar with. You can use different online resources to spark a discussion around the dinner table. The Museum of American History has an informative online lesson about Thanksgiving. Also check out “Thanksgiving History” from the Smithsonian’s partnership with Plimouth Plantation.

  • Take a road trip: If you live on the East Coast, you can bring history to life by traveling to the historic site of Plymouth with your family.

Consider American Indian Perspectives

Teach children that history includes more than one point of view. A triumphant narrative of discovery and growth, told from another perspective, can become a horrific account of theft and destruction.

We should all be mindful that the way in which Thanksgiving has been celebrated misrepresents American Indian experiences by glossing over the grave impact of European colonization.

The Wampanoag people had been living in the area around Cape Cod long before the colonists arrived, and they had an intimate understanding of the environment around them. They used this knowledge to help the English survive in an unknown land. Put another way, they made the first Thanksgiving possible.

By 1675, however, the once-peaceful relationship between the Wampanoag and the colonists had been replaced by conflict that devastated not only the Wampanoag community, but also American Indian nations across the continent. Whereas the first Thanksgiving celebrated, among other things, survival and resilience for the colonists, the holiday would also become a reminder of the devastation they wrought.

How to Implement These Lessons at Home:

  • Avoid stereotypes: Don’t decorate your house with teepees. The Wampanoag (wamp-a-NO-ag or WAMP-ah-nog) lived in wigwams — small thatched houses — and they did not wear the elaborate colored headdress often depicted in Thanksgiving decor. Here are some examples of typical mid-Atlantic American Indian dress.

  • Conduct a thought experiment: For older children, thought experiments can encourage philosophical discussion. Here is an example: What if tomorrow we received news that an entourage of sentient beings has landed on earth and wants to use our natural resources? How would we react? Would our reaction change depending on whether our celestial visitors asked politely or just took the resources they wanted?

  • Celebrate American Indian Heritage Month: Learn more about the American Indian perspective on Thanksgiving by visiting The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. or in New York City. If you can’t make the trip, check out their websites for dozens of helpful resources, like this one.

Teach Ethics Through Thanksgiving

Deeply woven into the concept of Thanksgiving is an ethics lesson. The cornucopia, with its seemingly endless supply of abundance, is a popular symbol of Thanksgiving sharing. But how generous are we with our resources? Can we do more for others? I think it is a good time of year not only to give thanks, but also to try to give back.

How to Implement These Lessons at Home:

  • Help at local organizations: Volunteer at a place of worship or other organization that is gearing up to feed the needy.

  • Donate a winter coat: It’s cold during this time of year. Fish out winter wear with your child and donate to a local charity that clothes those who cannot afford coats.

  • Implement acts of kindness: Encourage your children to do kind things for others. By sharing their toys or helping to care for others, they will internalize the lessons of compassion and kindness.

As we roast turkeys and decorate our homes with autumnal colors, we should also attend to the holiday’s historical context — and encourage our children to think critically about the past while giving thanks in the present.

Sources:

National Museum of the American Indian (2014). American Indian perspectives on thanksgiving. Retrieved online from the NMAI.

New York Public Library. (2003). The New York Public Library American history desk reference. New York: Hyperion.

Smithsonian Institute (n.d.). Thanksgiving in North America: From local harvests to national holiday. Retrieved online from the Smithsonian Institute Museum of the American Indian.

Walbert, K. (n.d.) Teaching Thanksgiving. Learn NC. Retrieved online from the University of North Carolina.

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