how to teach kids about thanksgiving

This time of year, many school-aged children are learning about pilgrims, Native Americans and their roles in the first Thanksgiving. But the traditional telling of the first day of thanks leaves out many details about how those pilgrims got there — and what happened to the Native Americans in the following years.

It's never too early — or too late — to help your children understand what Thanksgiving is and why we celebrate the holiday. And, there's a way to do it that promotes inclusivity and kindness as you go.

Why It's Important to Teach Kids About Thanksgiving

Regardless of where you live or what you believe, setting aside a day for thanks and gratitude is an important practice for families to incorporate into their traditions. While our modern Thanksgiving has been transformed into a holiday of excess, the original intent was for it to be a day to recognize the good things in our lives.

As adults, we spend so much time thinking about eating, watching football and making small talk with relatives that we often overlook the meaning of Thanksgiving. Because adults are so busy with all the "trappings" surrounding the holiday, they often rely on teachers to fill in the gaps and teach the facts about the first Thanksgiving.

But the problem is that the story of Thanksgiving — and the intent behind the holiday — have become marred in elementary school traditions of pilgrims hats, Indian feathers and lukewarm mashed potato and turkey classroom feasts. Besides that, the story of the first Thanksgiving doesn't tell the whole truth about the beginnings of our country.

The country's beginnings, including those friendly relationships celebrated at that first Thanksgiving, weren't all sunshine and roses. Within a generation of that first Plymouth Rock feast, the European settlers were at war with the Native Americans. The retelling of the first Thanksgiving facts for kids leaves something to be desired. But does that mean we should stop telling the story of the pilgrims? No!

When considering how to craft the first Thanksgiving story for kids, it's important to realize that parents have a responsibility to build on the narrative being taught in schools to help children understand the big picture. Holding an annual celebration to practice gratitude predates the pilgrims at Plymouth and it has endured long after any of them died.

It's not about settling a new world, although that does offer a good backdrop for a historical conversation. Rather, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate what we have and teach our children not to take it for granted.

why teach kids about thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving Story for Kids

In 1620, a group of English settlers set sail from Europe intending to settle along the east coast of North America. Originally, they planned to settle in the area home to today's New York City, but the bitter, cold winds and coastal weather forced them to make landfall along the coast of Massachusetts. The settlers arrived near Plymouth in November, greeted by a cold, bleak landscape.

The group of 100 was malnourished and quickly fell ill. Many died throughout that first winter. After some time had passed, members of the local Native American tribe, the Wampanoags, offered to help the settlers plant crops and settle into a small village. After a grueling first year, the remaining pilgrims began to thrive in their new home.

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and Wampanoags shared a harvest feast, a three-day event designed to celebrate the food they had produced and the hard work they had shared. This feast probably didn't feature pies or all the sweets many of us associate with Thanksgiving. It was an impressive spread of all the food the group had managed to grow and hunt.

The tradition of setting aside a day for gratitude and thanks became a regular part of the American narrative since the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress began designating "days of thanks." It was formally proclaimed a holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln's rationale in proclaiming this day of thanks was to set aside a day for healing and remembrance. His goal was that it would contribute toward the recovery he knew would need to take place at the end of the Civil War.

While the tradition of giving thanks for bounty has continued, the Native Americans and English settlers didn't remain friendly. Within a few years of that memorable first feast, the settlers became intent on taking land from the Native Americans. They began a systematic theft of their land and identity that has left an indelible mark on our country's history.

Although this part of the narrative isn't typically included in the Thanksgiving story for kids, it enables parents to have age-appropriate conversations with their children about the good — and bad — parts of our country's history. Rather than using Thanksgiving as a time to cover up mistakes, it can be a time for reflection and growth. It can also be a time for healing — just as President Lincoln intended all those years ago.

teaching kids about thanksgiving

How to Teach Kids About Thanksgiving

The 1621 feast did celebrate a successful year of friendship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, but the story doesn't end there. As the colonists began settling in North America, they encroached on Native American territory. The result was years of warring and violent actions as the foreigners stole the Native Americans' land and brutally attacked them. So how do you teach children about a holiday that isn't as cut-and-dried as it seems?

Rather than focus on that first Thanksgiving, try shifting the narrative and concentrate on some other aspects of the holiday instead:

how to teach kids about thanksgiving

1. Shift the Focus

As parents, we know a lot of things are clamoring for our children's attention — television, social media and friends, to name a few. We should not overlook the basis for our modern Thanksgiving just because we've focused on other things. Make an intentional effort to help your children focus on the important things by first resolving to change your own mindset.

Resolve to simplify your holiday menu, travel plans or shopping goals to spend more time together as a family. Model what a "right" focus during the holidays should look like.

Parents are skilled at redirecting their child's attention away from one thing in favor of another. But ignoring the holiday's origins, as well as the tumultuous history surrounding it, isn't the best way to handle it. If your child is older, shifting their focus may include an honest discussion about what happened to the Wampanoag tribe after that first Thanksgiving. If they're younger, it might be better to steer away from any historical narrative.

Although the traditional pilgrim-Indian story is embedded in the American narrative, the U.S. isn't the only country to set aside a day for Thanksgiving. Rather than focus on the American narrative, talk about how other countries celebrate Thanksgiving, and explore the various traditions used around the world to demonstrate gratitude. Not sure where to start? Check out how eight different countries give thanks for some tips on starting the conversation.

2. Allow Children to Explore the Story

Rather than telling children what to think, give them the tools to think critically. Find books about Thanksgiving that offer various perspectives. As you read, prompt your child to think about the message being conveyed. Ask them what the message is and what the author is trying to say. Older children may also benefit from reading books and visiting websites that talk more about the Native Americans' role in history and what happened after that first Thanksgiving celebration.

The information your child receives at school may seem basic or watered down, but resist the urge to criticize the teacher. In many cases, teachers aren't given much guidance for addressing holidays in their curriculum, so they may be working with limited resources. Instead of being critical of what's in the classroom, use it as a starting point to guide conversations at home.

3. Cultivate a Family Focus

As you explore the story of Thanksgiving, shift the focus away from the origins of the American holiday, and take a long look at your family's own traditions. What does your family enjoy about Thanksgiving? How does your family express gratitude? Are there things you'd like to add or remove from your annual celebration to make it more reflective of your own feelings and beliefs? Ask your family for input on what's important to them about the holidays and use that to build your celebration.

There's no time like the present to simplify your plan and focus on what's important. For some, this might mean including a lonely relative or neighbor. For others, this might mean scaling down the celebration and preparing a simple meal for immediate family members only. Use your thoughts and feelings about what's important to cultivate the right family focus for you.

4. Give to Others

Thanksgiving celebrates abundance, but many families don't have an abundance to celebrate. This year, make a point to have conversations with your child about those who have less, and make a plan to help them. Many organizations organize food basket fundraisers or collect food items to share with people in the community who need them. If you can, pitch in by serving food or delivering meals to shut-ins.

However, generosity doesn't stop with donating a few canned goods. Look around you. Do you know someone who needs a home-cooked meal on Thanksgiving? Do you know someone who is alone for the holidays? Perhaps you know a person who needs money to make it home to be with their own family. Take notice of the needs around you and use Thanksgiving as a time to help meet those needs any way you can.

5. Avoid Negativity

Thanksgiving is a major family holiday, but all that time with extended relatives can bring up a mix of emotions. Differences in opinions can lead to arguments and tension around the dinner table, and even young children can pick up on that. Resolving to avoid negativity — even if it means biting your tongue and keeping your opinions to yourself — can go a long way toward encouraging a peaceful atmosphere. It's also a great way to teach children the power of getting along.

Another way that negativity can creep into Thanksgiving celebrations is commercialism. Black Friday has slowly been creeping into Thanksgiving Day, and many families make a tradition of hitting the stores as soon as they've eaten that last piece of pie. While shopping trips — or shopping at home online — can be fun, they can also spur a "gimmie" attitude, especially among children. If this happens frequently in your family, then avoiding negativity may mean letting go of sales, deals and the holiday's commercial trappings during Thanksgiving Day.

6. Have Fun Together

What better way to teach your child about gratitude than to give them something else to be thankful for? Turn off the television and spend time together having fun and making memories. Organize a family game of touch football, take a drive to look at holiday decorations or play a board game.

After the turkey is eaten and the parades have passed by, find ways to have fun and build family togetherness. If you're gathering with extended family, take advantage of the time together to look at old photos and home movies, share stories and remember past holidays. This can be a great way to form new memories while still honoring the past.

Thanksgiving Success for Parents and Teachers

thanksgiving success for parents and teachers

There's no perfect recipe for a successful Thanksgiving, and there's not one specific way to explain the first Thanksgiving to kids. Every child and every family has different needs, expectations and traditions. But regardless of how your family observes the holiday, one thing remains true — everyone needs a reason to stop and acknowledge the good things they have. Everyone needs a time to reflect on the year behind them and look ahead to the year to come.

The historical ups and downs surrounding the American Thanksgiving holiday can provide some much-needed guidance for parents when teaching children what gratitude is all about. Rather than sugarcoating the truth, giving a realistic picture of where our country has been and where it's headed can provide a canvas for your child to develop their own thoughts of understanding, compassion and gratitude.

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