There is no easy way to introduce one’s child to the harsh reality of life on our Little Blue Planet. It sure would be nice if my daughter, who is about to turn six, could spend the rest of her life in an imaginary world of fairies, secret gardens and princess kingdoms. I would like to join her there most days, especially if it means I could finally ask out Princess Jasmine to dinner.
But, in fact, we live in a world where the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust and 1,001 other historical horrors are reality—and far worse than the monster that lives in our trash compactor. Or used to live there, rather. I confessed this lie to my daughter about a month ago.
She knows that I explain the world to her realistically, “unlike other kids’ parents,” even if it’s just in terms she can understand. So she was somewhat disappointed in me and demanded an explanation. After all, I had explained the science behind outlets and what happens if one is daft enough to stick one’s finger into an electrical field. Why was the trash compactor any different?
We have a rule in our house that “because” is never an adequate answer, so I knew I had to fess up. Yet I struggled for a comprehensible justification: “I don’t know. I was afraid you would stick your hand in there, and I needed to make sure you were equally afraid.”
My daughter shook her head, “I don’t get it. Either way, I would have lost my fingers.”
I may have a budding philosopher on my hands. Or perhaps a future progressive politician. Just last week she told me she was going to be the first female President of the United States “unless that other lady gets there first.” Watch out, Hillary. You have competition.
History, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, parentally speaking.
When my daughter was three, I took her to the Columbia Museum of Art. She fell in love with the painting “Buffalo Hunt” by Charles Christian Heinrich Nahl and spent several subsequent visits sketching it in one of her Hello Kitty notebooks.
She interpreted the work as a race between the Native American on horseback and the buffalo. In a way, she was right. The buffalo loses the race.
On a trip to the museum last year, she finally realized that the Native American is holding a bow and arrow in his hand. “I wonder if that’s why the buffalo’s eye is so afraid,” she wondered.
“Buffalo Hunt” taught me that there are some things our children need to learn experientially. The truth will reveal itself over time.
Teaching history to one’s child is a bit like that. But it also requires thoughtfully timed cues. Non-fiction picture books from my childhood rarely went to the trouble even to hint that major historical figures were tainted by the problem of evil. I find that today there is a bit more effort to show the dark side of history in children’s literature. Still, authors and illustrators would much rather leave “the whole truth” to parents.
Last Thanksgiving, during a drive from South Carolina to Michigan, I caught the full episode of “This American Life’s” account of the Mankato Massacre. On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux Native Americans were slaughtered in the largest public execution in U.S. history, following several decades of indescribable betrayal by the territorial and state politicians of Minnesota.
What truly shocked me is that I had never heard about this event. I was born and reared in Minnesota. Although no Minnesotan’s education is complete without a trip to historical Fort Snelling and requisite reading of the canon of Laura Ingalls Wilder, not one picture book, textbook, educational film, etc., ever mentioned the Dakota War of 1862, or Sioux Uprising, as it is also known.
Miles and miles of Ohio farm fields that week gave me time to think the matter over. I grew restless in the driver’s seat. I felt cheated. I am a well-educated person; history has been paramount to my adult development, with my chosen academic fields of archaeology and biblical history. How did I go my entire life without knowing this tragedy had occurred within the boundaries of my home state?
I arrived home from Thanksgiving determined to make sure I begin introducing my daughter to real history—even if just in terms her five-year-old mind is capable of understanding.
In the past year, we made several trips to the South Carolina State House grounds and began the discussion of the history of slavery in our nation. I will never forget when she asked me why there was a collar around the neck of the man in the African-American Monument. It was akin to the moment she had noticed the bow and arrow in “Buffalo Hunt”; suddenly she understood the horror of slavery: people had been treated like animals.
This past summer, we visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, the subject of one of my previous essays. Through pictures, artifacts and sound recordings she experienced the heroism of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi and others. She saw the tomb of Dr. and Mrs. King, saw the eternal flame. She now has a connection with this story of history.
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