Teach your kids the people’s history of the United States

Embarrassing confession: Someday I’d like to be a historical interpreter.

You know what I mean. Those people who dress in pioneer costumes and shuck corn at historical villages. I think I’d be pretty good at it. No matter how hard you tried to trip me up, I’d never reveal that the president was anyone but Ulysses S. Grant or that I got to the village any way other than horse and wagon.

I don’t know why, but the Little House on the Prairie series is wintertime to me. Maybe because weather was everything to them, they lived and died by it, and much of Wilder’s writing focused on the seasons. For whatever reason, I crave those books in December, but I can’t read them past March.

Last winter, when Gus was three, we started reading Little House in the Big Woods. We had tried chapter books before, with more or less luck. But when we started reading about homesteading, he was hooked.

A five-page description of how Pa dug a well? Detailed instructions of how Laura and Mary hung onions in the attic? Keep reading, Mom! He could not get enough of it. (Of course, neither could I.)

One of our favorite winter activities is learning about how people long ago survived (and celebrated in) the cold.

The Minnesota History Center has dozens of historical farms, historical mansions, and living history villages – and we’re slowly crossing each one off our list. Last year, we learned about Victorian-era Christmas traditions at a mansion in downtown St. Paul. We rode on a one-horse open sleigh at a pioneer village, and we learned how ice from Minnesota’s frozen lakes was harvested and shipped as far away as India at an ice harvesting festival. Today, we went to the History Center itself, and I was impressed to see how much of the exhibit was dedicated to Native American cultures and history.

I find it important to remember that the Wilder family’s story of “settling” the prairie was not one of claiming empty land. The places they built their homes were on land already occupied by the indigenous people who had lived there for generations.

If I’m going to enjoy the Little House series for it’s good parts, I feel a moral obligation not to gloss over it’s bad parts.

And so I point out these issues to Gus when we’re reading. At four, he’s had conversations about indigenous people’s land rights. We talked about the many times Native Americans were made to move, and move, and move again. We discussed how the European settlers hunted all the buffalo intentionally to cut off the indigenous people from their main food source. I credit reading the Little House series as a major reason for why Gus felt as compelled as he did this fall to support the Standing Rock Sioux.

As parents, we want to protect our children from negativity for as long as possible. However, there is a way to present this kind of information to young children without harming them. I preview all content first (watch videos alone first, scan books for photographs I’m not ready for my kids to see). Then, I give one or two basic facts in simplified language. “The colonists made the Native Americans move because they wanted to live on their land.” After that, I wait for the questions to come and answer them as they roll in, continuing to use short, simple answers.

Remember also that it’s okay not to answer right away. If you can’t think of the right response, or if you’re unsure if your child is ready to hear the truth, think about it. Come back to it later. “Hey, I remember you were asking me about the Trail of Tears. Well, I had a chance to read more about it. Are you still interested in talking about it?”

It’s important to me that my kids don’t grow up learning just a rich, white man’s perspective of history.

The historical sites in Minnesota, for the most part, do a good job telling the stories in the indigenous people who lived here first, as well as the stories of the various immigrant groups who settled (are settling) in Minnesota and made (are making) it what it is.

Here are some other resources I plan to use to teach history in our homeschool:

A Young Person’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Rebecca Stefoff

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow

How are you teaching history to your kids?

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