There is such a thing as a child’s age-appropriate lesson being derailed and confused by an unthinking, loud-mouth adult.
Christopher Columbus discovered America. My son Roman was thrilled, soaking in a ton of new knowledge like a sponge. He was fascinated with how they sailed back then, with no electronics whatsoever. No gps, no phones, no internet or google maps or anything. Using hand-drawn maps, of only that part of the world that had been explored so far, and hoping the maps were accurate? Using only a compass (and a few other tools) and your knowledge of the stars to tell where you were on the big, open ocean and hoping you didn’t make a mistake? Setting out to cross an ocean there is no map for and hoping to find land? Roman was fascinated, in awe, and excited to learn all of this. Studying the map that Columbus had and comparing it to one of today’s maps blew his mind. His understanding of continents and where they were and how people traveled was like discovering a new world. His confusion as to how Columbus could mistake the Americas for India morphed into wonder and then glee as his mind suddenly connected the dots and he got it.
We visited some extended family the week after; a somewhat large gathering. Roman couldn’t wait to share what he’d learned with them; surely they’d find it as amazing as he! Who wouldn’t? So he began to tell them, his big eyes shining and a grin on his face. He barely got beyond saying “I learned how Columbus found America…” before one of these extended family members, one whom Roman looks up to and loves a great deal, interrupted.
The man exploded out with a scoff and declared loudly: “Yeah, and then he murdered more than half of the Indians.”
Roman froze. The joy fled from his face to be replaced with confusion, doubt, and mortification. He was wrong? This man who he’d thought was brave to cross the ocean was really a murderer? He’d been about to share his excitement over a guy who was actually horrible? Roman clammed up and refused to share anymore.
I took a step closer to my son, and said, politely but clearly: “He’s in kindergarten. We were just learning about how the continents were discovered, and how people explored back then. Columbus put the Americas on the map. That’s all.”
There was this long, uncomfortable pause.
Conversation soon flowed again onto other topics, but Roman stayed back, hardly smiled, and barely talked (he’s usually a talker). I, for my part, was furious. Yes. Furious.
I don’t know much about Columbus as a human being; his character, his morals, etc. There are too many figures in history to study every single one of them in such great detail, and for my part he didn’t make the list. There were other men whose character intrigued me more, so I’m not going to talk about whether or not Christopher Columbus was a stand up guy or a butcher.
Roman is six. Six. When he’s fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, he will be old enough and mature enough to learn about some of these issues, how some people we credit with great things in history also did morally questionable things. He will be mature enough to struggle with it, ponder it, think about it. Even debate it.
But right now he’s six. At age six: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That’s it.
This man, who I’m learning has a very, very low opinion of America and American History (much of which I take issue with, because a lot of it seems to be his perspective and opinion rather than research or fact), was more concerned with making a loud statement for everyone to hear than he was in listening to this little boy’s excitement for learning. He didn’t actually care about what Roman was saying. He just nabbed an opening to spout his own opinion and squashed my son under his soap box.
I wish adults wouldn’t do that. We’re at a point, obviously, where we know so, so, so much more, and understand or at least recognize the different complexities and contradictions and grey areas that make up history and life, but we have to remember that for a young child there is: right, wrong. Yes, no. Up, down. Day, night. They are still learning the basics. Sometimes, too often, an adult forgets that and says something that turns, for the child, everything they’ve just learned upside down because they’re not ready for it. They will be, in time. But not yet.
We need to remember that. When a kid is sharing with you something they learned— unless it’s glaringly wrong (misinformation), just be quiet and listen. This is how the love of learning is nurtured, not just by teaching them things, but letting them share what they’ve learned. Listen to them. Bask in their wonder with them. Be excited with them as they talk.
So I will teach my kindergartener that Columbus was brave enough to sail into the unknown, and that he found the Americas, and because of him this great land is now known and on the map.
We’ll discuss his status as a butcher and murderer a different time.