When my son came home from school the other day, the first thing he said to me was, “I learned about the Mayflower today!” And an immense feeling of dread overtook me.
This is not the first time this has happened. Last month, he came home from school and said, “I learned about Christopher Columbus today.” And again, my stomach dropped.
Don’t get me wrong; I love how excited my son is about learning. And I definitely didn’t let him in on my worry either time. My problem is not his. My problem is that I spent eight years as a middle school social studies teacher.
I love my kids’ school. My wife and I spent a lot of time searching for just the right place to send both of our children, and it’s great. They both love the place and are learning tons everyday. And it is really amazing how much of a curriculum they have for both my 4-year-old and my 1-year-old.
But as I listen to my children report back the lessons they are learning about history, I am torn between my desire that their teachers honor the true stories of these historic people, and the kid-friendly versions that are often told in preschool. Christopher Columbus didn’t discover anything (except maybe a convenient way of subjugating an indigenous population). The Pilgrims and Puritans on the Mayflower didn’t have respect for the Native Americans who were already at Plymouth. These stories are incredibly nuanced, and I want my kids to recognize that fact.
But at the same time, my son is 4 and my daughter is 1. I really don’t want to expose them to the heinous reality. And then, that is the real challenge with history. Like religion, history is really complex. And I know that when my kids go to Hebrew school, I am going to face the same problem. There are parts of the Torah, our history, and modern politics that I am not proud of, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want my kids to know the stories. I don’t want to lie to them, even if I don’t want to tell them the whole truth.
Perhaps, it would be better for my son and his classmates to learn that Christopher Columbus did a good job navigating the Atlantic Ocean, which allowed for more Europeans to travel to the Western Hemisphere (with positive and negative outcomes). My son should also know that the people who were in America when Columbus arrived were not treated very well by Columbus and that we should work to be better people and treat everyone kindly. And as far as the Pilgrims go, my son should learn that yes, the Native Americans helped them out, but it was hard, and once they got on their feet, they didn’t act very kindly back towards the Natives. I think when we teach American history to our children, we have an opportunity to encourage them to do better, rather than lionize past mistakes.
That said, I should give the school some credit. When my son came home and told me that Columbus discovered America, I asked him if anyone was already here. He said yes, and when I followed that up with asking if Columbus really discovered America, my son thought for a moment and said no. I know he is learning to think critically.
Kids understand things much more than we give them credit for. Four-year-olds know that not everyone in the world is good, but they also know what it means to try to do better. That is the historic and moral lesson that I am trying to pass on to my kids. The characters in the stories of our history are not perfect, and we can learn from their flaws.
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