Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Columbus Day, Consider it Reconsidered: Talking to Kids About Difficult Subjects

Yesterday was Columbus Day.

The above video features a series of people asking that we reconsider Columbus Day in light of the fact that part of what we are celebrating is a history of occupation, brutality, and cruel disregard for indigenous people.

So, aside from concerns about how working moms should juggle childcare on a holiday that seems only celebrated by government offices and schools, there are some other concerns about parenting that this holiday brings up: what do I tell my kid?

Look, I can't even decide what to tell my daughter about Santa Claus yet, so I certainly don't know how to tell her why her school is celebrating this conquest. It's a delicate balance between (brutal) truth and not terrifying her. I have also been putting a lot of thought into how to share with her views on this and other, less morally complicated, subjects (Disney princesses, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) while still sharing a live-and-let-live philosophy. I want my daughter to be an informed critical thinker with the tools to analyze her world, not a preachy ideologue who ostracizes her fellow kindergartners. What I'm saying is, I think that some iteration of this decision is going to come up again and again.

Luckily, I didn't have to figure it out by yesterday because all my daughter can say is "mama," "dada," and "blahlablahlablahla," so her extreme liberal rantings were masked from her impressionable daycare peers.

In all seriousness, though, how do you handle these things?

An online search for some guidance turned up tons of Columbus Day crafts for kids, but not much on explaining the historical intricacies.

This Washington Post blogger notes that places like Berkeley, California celebrate Indigenous People Day instead. While I'm all about celebrating indigenous people instead, to not even mention the truth of the legacy just seems like the coward's way out.

This post at Secondary Refuse describes the writer's conversation with her pre-school-aged daughter:

Then, I told her that Columbus was sailing a ship from Europe and just happened to reach the Americas. I said that Columbus was a person just like all other people, he had both good traits and bad traits. I told her Columbus did some very good things: he was brave and smart to sail all that way, he tried to trade with the people he met, bringing them things from Europe that they didn't have, and taking thing from the Americas that the Europeans didn't have. (Bunny wanted to know what things. I told her "corn". Dr. Mr. Palimpsest suggested "syphilis", but luckily Bunny didn't pick up on that.)  
But, I added, Columbus did some bad things. I told her that Columbus stole things from the people he met. We have talked about slavery before, so I told her that he took some of the people as slaves. Finally, I told her that Columbus and his crew were carrying bad diseases, and they spread these diseases to the people in the Americas, so many, many people died.

And that seems like a good plan--to balance the bad with some good, because otherwise it would have to be extremely confusing to figure out why school is celebrating mass murder. This approach did, however, bring up another problem I hadn't thought about: contemporary fears. We can't expect children to understand the historical distance of these events at such a young age, and this writer's daughter expressed some fears that she would get the bad diseases, too. Though the writer handled it well by talking about vaccinations and how long ago it was, it's still traumatic to share this kind of information.

What do you do/plan to do? What's the right age to bring this up? Are you proactive or do you wait until your child asks about it? Do you dole out your explanation based on your kid's age or do you lay it all out at once? What other issues have you found hard to talk about?


  1. As you suggest, it's just one in a series of conversations (including sex), and unfortunately one the biggest factors for me is "will all the other parents hate me if my child passes this information on?" Will my child lose friends and play dates over it? I guess that's just another reason to surround yourself with like-minded friends.

  2. I anticipate a conversation about these themes with my daughter when it comes to Australia Day (marking the anniversary of white settlement). Being that she is Aboriginal, we will definitely be telling her what actually took place in and around the time of 1788 and that the Aboriginal people have been in Australia for 70,000 years and are the oldest culture known on earth. Of course the information will be age appropriate. At the moment we are always camping with extended family when Australia Day occurs (late January being summer here) and we make sure we have an Aboriginal flag on display at our camp site and we do typically Australian summer activities like BBQ and swim while we are camping. But she will definitely be told more facts as she gets older. It is a challenge though.

  3. My six year old daughter's public school does not celebrate Columbus Day. But we were in the car and an ad for a Columbus Day Sale came on the radio, so she asked who he was. I basically told her he was the first white man from mainland Europe to see our country (since Scandanavians landed long before). We had discussed Thanksgiving just the day before, so she said that there were people here already before he got there. Then she started crying and I asked why, and she sobbed that brown people were really Americans and that meant she wasn't and she wished she had brown skin. And I was really at a loss because I handn't implied anything like that and that wasn't the message I was trying to get across. It was another reminder of how difficult these conversations can be