Here’s How To Explain Thanksgiving To Kids

by Nikkya Hargrove
A woman having a sit down with her daughter explaining Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, hands down. Being a mom and sharing this holiday with my kids makes it even more special for me. But as much as I love this holiday, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have problematic roots that need to be addressed. This holiday season, I plan to get real with my kids about the true meaning of Thanksgiving — it’s not about the turkey and the sweet potato pie. It’s time to tell my kids the truth in a way that they will understand. Here’s how you can talk about Thanksgiving with your kids.

“Parents can start by telling their kids the truth and offering their children the more complex narrative. Kids are smart and capable of understanding,” Matika Wilbur of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes told TODAY Parents in an interview on the subject.

Paula Peters, a Wampanoag historical scholar, explained to TODAY Parents that “The Wampanoag have been marginalized and forgotten and the back story is so incredibly critical for what ultimately happens.”

“Being able to talk about the true trepidation that the Wampanoag had with forging a relationship (is important),” Peters said. She added that the Wampanoag didn’t immediately welcome the Puritans with open arms like we’re taught. In fact, they spent months observing the newcomers. They were hesitant because people who looked like the Pilgrims had come and stole all of their food in the past.

You can help kids relate by talking about how hard it is to meet new people. Add to that the fact that these new people look so different from you, speak a different language, and you don’t have anything in common. Yes, our kids are taught to be kind to everyone, but have them really sit and think about what it must be like.

For my six-year-old twin daughters, I will center the belief that holidays, even Thanksgiving, are a time for families to come together.

Before we get to sit around the dinner table, we will share tidbits of how Thanksgiving came to be. Scholar and professor who propelled Americans to confront racist beliefs head-on, Ibram X. Kendi says it best on his blog, “If we are serious about bringing Americans together, the work has to start with our own families.” Holidays are about coming together, as a family, but we must clear the air, even when it may be uncomfortable to hear. When we talk about Thanksgiving with our kids, my wife and I will tell our daughters this: Thanksgiving is about family. It’s about sharing a meal with others, even others who are different from you. It’s about welcoming any and everyone to the dinner table.

We will start to talk about Thanksgiving by reading a few Thanksgiving-themed books, since my kids love to read. Here is where you’d need to think about how your kids hear you the best. Maybe it’s when you’re driving to swim class and in the car? Maybe it’s right after bath time? Whatever the “entry point” is for your kids, know that and use that time to talk about what Thanksgiving is for your family and how it came to be in America. If books are your thing, here are a few options to consider and maybe even check out from your public library. Here are six books that can help you explain Thanksgiving to your kids from the perspective of Native Americans:

  1. ​​Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp. This book is perfect for kids ages 5-11.
  2. 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace. If you have kiddos between the ages of 8-12 this one might be the one for them.
  3. The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose. This one I’ll be reading to my kids and this book is great for kids ages 4-8.
  4. Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac — this story is great for kiddos between the ages of 4-7.
  5. Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition (We Are Still Here)
  6. The First Thanksgiving by Linda Hayward is for your kid if they like reading to you, or they are learning to read — perfect for ages 6-8.

If we take a step back and understand the facts, Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily the kind of holiday that is all about pumpkin pie and turkey, but more of a reflection about how far we’ve come as a country. I will talk about Thanksgiving with my kids by reminding them that despite what they may read or see in imagery, the Wampanoag are still an active tribe.

“We’re not using clay pots anymore. We use a stove just like you. We’re still here,” Wampanoag tribe member Bettina Washington said to NPR.

For some, the holiday is riddled with the hypocrisy of history. For some, the holiday is about family, food, and football. For me, Thanksgiving is about enjoying a good, home-cooked meal with my family, some of whom I only get to see at that time of year.

What I hope for you and your family as you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, is to remember how far we’ve come as a country and in doing so, acknowledge how far we have to go. Maybe it’s about swapping out sitting in front of the television screaming at whatever football team is playing and replacing that time with a fun Thanksgiving trivia game with your family or helping those stuffy family members who never share anything about themselves – loosen them up with a Thanksgiving icebreaker.

Here are a list of additional resources:

Smithsonian’s Native Knowledge 360º Education Initiative.

Plymouth 400, which was created for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival.

Find out which tribe’s land you live on with this tool.