For many, Thanksgiving is an occasion for family and friends to eat delicious food, spend time together and express thanks. However, many of us have been misled by the standard school curriculum, including cartoon type images of Pilgrims and Native Americans that misrepresent the history the actual events. It benefits us all to educate ourselves on the true story, approach thoughtful conversations appropriately with children and plan respectful ways to celebrate.

First, let’s get the true story of Thanksgiving on the table (pun intended), then review ways to approach the holiday with care and how you can respectfully recognize, celebrate and educate. Our goal is for all families to approach the holiday with intention and care, so that our next generation is filled with educated, compassionate, empathetic people.

Approaching the Holiday with Care

Knowing the story is easy. Knowing how to approach the common Thanksgiving celebrations with a child is the challenge. Here are our recommendations:

     Be on the same page
 • Parents, nannies, or other caregivers should have an open dialogue about a joint approach and messaging
 • Discuss your plan recognizing the holiday respectfully, such as ideas for crafts and activities, stories and celebratory events
 • Be open to new ideas for the benefit of the child

     Be knowledgeable and open
 • In addition to the true story of Thanksgiving as summarized above, continue to do your own research to be fully educated on the history
 • Take time to reckon with yourself that the story that we’ve been told is not a factual representation of the events
 • Listen to how others view the holiday, including Native Americans so that we can approach the story in a respectful manner

Parenting Tips

Our reckoning with the true story of Thanksgiving doesn’t have to put an end to the holiday, but it should influence the way we approach it. It is a challenging topic for all parents and caregivers. We know we won’t get it exactly right, but we can start by doing our part to recognize, to listen, to learn and then revisit our traditions with respect and care. 

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How to respectfully celebrate thanksgiving with Kids

The True Story of Thanksgiving

• In 1620, a group of 102 people, known as the Pilgrims, set out from Europe on a sail boat, the Mayflower, to settle on land in the “New Americas”. Although their reasons for leaving are not known exactly, other Europeans had taken similar ventures and had financial gain through “colonization” of the land.

• The Europeans referred to the land as the “New Americas” which can be misleading as the land was not in fact new to humans, it was new to Europeans in 1492. At that time, there were already 60 million indigenous people living on the land. The European travelers who had come to the land in the century before the Pilgrims brought disease and violence which led to only 10% of the native population remaining by the time the Pilgrims sailed to this “new land”.

• The Pilgrims landed on the tip of Cape Cod (known now as Provincetown, Massachusetts) then traveled to a safer harbor in Plymouth.

• Unprepared for the winter, the Pilgrims struggled. Approximately half of the voyagers died. The Native American tribe, the Wampanoags agreed to helped the Pilgrims in an alliance where the Pilgrims would share their weapons to fend off threats from neighboring villages. The Wampanoag in turn taught the Pilgrims to harvest and to care for themselves. Without this assistance, the Pilgrims would not have survived.

• The Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims even though Europeans had previously captured and enslaved them or their people. They were only able to communicate through tribe leaders who had spent years enslaved in the hands of Europeans who spoke English, namely Chief Squanto.

• In November 1621, a year after the Wampanoag tribe helped the Pilgrims harvest their crops, they sat down together to enjoy the harvest. It was a celebration of generosity and friendship and a time to reflect on ways they are grateful, a common practice of Native Americans.

• Native American practice of gratitude includes giving thanks to nature, the plants, the trees, the animals, the ground the sky and the people around them.

• After the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags continued their alliance for many years until the relationship broke into war, causing the suffering of the Wampanoag tribe.

• Today, there are approximately 4,000-5,000 Wampanoag tribe members living in New England, a fraction of the 40,000 people who lived in New England when the Pilgrims first stepped onto the land.

• The Wampanoag people continue to live their way of life today, telling their stories, holding traditional ceremonies, speaking their Wampanoag language, singing and dancing, and continuing to show respect and appreciation for all living beings. They refer to themselves as “People of the First Light”.

Although the story is tragic and horrific, one lesson we can teach our children from this is the way of the Wampanoag people. How they helped even though they had been hurt. How they survived and even through this hardship, they still maintain an attitude of gratefulness and thankfulness – one we’d all be better served to hold. It can also be an opportunity to teach our children that many of us come from a line of ancestors who had gained wealth to the detriment of others, something that we should not approach with pride, but with reckoning. 

      Teach children about family through play:

 • Set up photos of family and friends so your child can hold, play with and talk about them any time they want. Create a fun family tree on a magnet board with family pictures. Make photocopies of family/friends’ pictures and laminate them for your little one to play with and walk around with. Make sure to include extended family members and close friends. Ask the child what they love and appreciate about each person.

 • Using photos of family members, friends or even books and magazines, acknowledge people’s differences and similarities. Stand with your child at a mirror to do the same. Look at everyone’s eyes, ears, hair, noses, and skin. Discuss the differences we all have and how it makes us each unique and special.

 • Go on walks in your neighborhood and identify teachable moments. Discuss how each house may be different and how each family is different. If you know some of your neighbors use this time to talk about their family and how they differ from yours, such as culture, structure or style.

      Discuss the true story of Thanksgiving:

 • Have a conversation with your child, being mindful of the agreed upon approach between parents and caregivers after assessing maturity levels.
 • Read books about Thanksgiving that are appropriately represented. Show on a map where the Pilgrims came from and where they landed.
 • Acknowledge others that travel to the United States for a new life, including ancestral lineage to immigration.

      Model the gratitude of the Wampanoag tribe:

 • Discuss the way of the Wampanoag people and their appreciation for all living beings
 • Model your appreciation for the earth and its living beings by discussing nature: how trees give off oxygen that we need to breath, that bees pollinate to help plants grow and produce honey that makes our food and drink sweeter, that birds help our ecosystem survive by pollinating, spreading seeds, and serve as nature’s cleanup crew.
 • Start a practice of gratitude with your kids by together identifying 3 things you are each thankful for.

     Be mindful of the maturity level of your child
 • Parents and caregivers know that age is just a number and all kids progress in different ways. Some toddlers may be mature enough to handle a difficult subject while others may not.
 • While not whitewashing the story, be mindful of the parts of the story you feel that your child can absorb at this time.

     Be respectful in your planned activities
 • Gone are the days of those paper vests, construction paper feather headbands, black paper hats with yellow paper buckles. Gone are the “teepee” arts and crafts. We now know these are offensive. They also continue to portray the cartoon-type images of Thanksgiving that have often glorified the relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

Ways to Respectfully Recognize and Celebrate the Holiday