My kindergartner came home last week full of exciting tales about Columbus. Needless to say, none of those tales included genocide.
I've only begun the process of talking to my kids about the hard truths behind our national myths. Last year, we tackled Thanksgiving, after Bunny's preschool fed her the whole Pilgrims and Indians story. This year, it's Columbus Day.
Here's what I told Bunny about Columbus. I'm interested in how others have faced this challenge, so please leave a comment!
First, I told Bunny that there were lots of people living in the Americans, and they built great cities, made beautiful art and music, and did all the things that we do today (i.e., made food, spent time with their families, worked, etc.)
Then, I told her that Columbus was sailing a ship from Europe and just happened to reach the Americas. I said that Columbus was a person just like all other people, he had both good traits and bad traits. I told her Columbus did some very good things: he was brave and smart to sail all that way, he tried to trade with the people he met, bringing them things from Europe that they didn't have, and taking thing from the Americas that the Europeans didn't have. (Bunny wanted to know what things. I told her "corn". Dr. Mr. Palimpsest suggested "syphilis", but luckily Bunny didn't pick up on that.)
But, I added, Columbus did some bad things. I told her that Columbus stole things from the people he met. We have talked about slavery before, so I told her that he took some of the people as slaves. Finally, I told her that Columbus and his crew were carrying bad diseases, and they spread these diseases to the people in the Americas, so many, many people died.
This last point took a lot of explaining, and was difficult to keep on a kindergarten level. Bunny wanted to know why the people in the Americas died from the diseases when the Europeans did not (epidemiology on a preschool level, anyone?!) She was also a little scared by this information, so her father and I were very careful to explain that this was a long time ago, and these diseases can now be treated by doctors. She was interested to learn that the shots she's forced to endure are vaccinations to ensure she doesn't get sick like the people Columbus met.
We summed up the whole thing by saying that some people celebrate Columbus Day because Columbus was brave and smart, but not everyone likes to celebrate because of the bad things he did.
How do you handle these issues?