How to explain Thanksgiving fact vs. fiction to your kids

The story of Thanksgiving that’s been taught in elementary school classrooms for years isn’t exactly historically accurate.

Contrary to the false narrative of Native Americans welcoming “friendly” European Pilgrims to the New World, the real story behind Thanksgiving is more complicated and leaves out crucial information about Native communities and their history before and after the Pilgrims. 

While the history of Thanksgiving is complex, demystifying it shouldn’t have to be. Talking to your kids about the facts and fictions of the holiday clears the way for more significant learning and understanding of Native Americans beyond Thanksgiving. 

Here’s how to explain the facts and fictions of Thanksgiving to a younger audience.

Address and correct the myths behind the holiday 

Fiction: European Pilgrims brought civility and the concept of “giving thanks” to Native Americans.

Fact: Long before the Pilgrims came over, Native Americans already had large and complex societies as well as harvest celebrations, feast traditions, and holidays of their own. They were also already familiar with the concept of giving thanks and had their own religious beliefs and rituals.

Fiction: The “first Thanksgiving” was the beginning of the official holiday.

Fact: There was a harvest celebration in 1621 between the Plymouth settlers and Wampanoags, but it actually wasn’t called Thanksgiving. It also didn’t happen every year, according to Reader’s Digest. The next official “Thanksgiving” was in 1637 after a war between the Pilgrims and the Pequots.

Fiction: Pilgrims became friends with Native Americans and worked together in harmony.

Fact: The relationship between the settlers and Native Americans wasn’t often a harmonious one. The settlers usually took what they wanted from the Native Americans, according to the National Museum of the American Indian

In addition to helping your child understand the myths and truths behind Thanksgiving, here are some other ways you and your family can appropriately celebrate and reflect on the complex holiday. 

Shift the holiday’s purpose

According to NPR, it can be helpful to focus on specific ways different cultures show gratitude. Explain that many cultures celebrated some form of Thanksgiving prior to the Pilgrims.

Donating to organizations controlled and led by Native Americans is another great way to reframe Thanksgiving. 

Make connections to current events

Compare the history of Thanksgiving with what’s happening in the world today. Synthesize it into a lesson about the true definition of a Pilgrim; people who left their homeland looking for freedom.

Furthermore, drawing parallels between now and then can be as simple as highlighting that all children have ancestors. 

Prioritize critical thinking

Thanksgiving is an opportune time to get children to question and understand different perspectives.

Discuss how Native American people are depicted in textbooks and what historical details are missing from those descriptions. 

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If you enjoyed this story, check out these five ways to get your kids involved in giving back this Thanksgiving.

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