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Teaching children American history

By Nathan Rice

We were studying American history in preparation for his upcoming quiz, but I got stuck when he asked if I could name all of the original 13 colonies. I went through the ones I could remember, and we then worked together to learn them all.

One question that I did know was the date the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain. “You know this one, too,” I said.  Nearly every elementary-aged schoolchild knows the date of July 4, 1776. It’s a date that is etched in our nation’s history, and it is bound to be an answer on a test question somewhere along the way.

As we approach the 244th anniversary of July 4, 1776, let’s pause to look at how and what we teach our children about American history.

It’s OK to tell of the heroic acts of the people who risked everything to start a nation they hoped would lead to freedom and a better governing system for them and their descendants. America has had some incredible successes, and there’s nothing wrong with allowing children to have some pride in their country. There is a lot they can celebrate!

Children should be allowed to marvel at the bravery of those who stormed the beaches at Normandy and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom for generations to come. Those learning the history of this nation should know about the great things it has done, as well as the dream of a better life that it still holds for so many.

It’s also OK to tell the stories of when America failed to live up to that great dream. They should understand why the Trail of Tears received its historic name. We should tell children about the horrors of slavery and lament the fact that so many people in this country once thought it was OK to own another person. The United States of America has done some wicked things, and we’d be foolish to hide those things from our children.

We should include the good, the bad and the ugly when we teach our children about the history of our nation. It would be easy to handpick the stories that make the United States look nearly perfect, but we do a disservice to our children if we ignore the ugly facts in our nation’s history. Likewise, choosing only the stories that paint our country in a negative light isn’t wise or fair to them.

Children can understand that our nation’s history isn’t entirely good or totally evil. They should be allowed to know the full story in a way that is understandable and appropriate for their age and maturity level.

Sharing the complete story also allows us to discuss the events more fully. We can laud those who helped make this country a great nation, celebrate its successes, lament its failures, and discuss why and how certain evils were allowed to take place. There are lessons they can learn from our nation’s successes and failures. Perhaps as we share, we, too, can learn and grow.

Nathan Rice is a Hampton Roads native and can be reached at nrice@abnb.org.