Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Myth Making and Child Rearing

What should have been expected event given the time of year, took me by surprise yesterday. I picked up my son from his new daycare provider--an incredibly nice, sweet and nurturing person--and my son began rambling on about ships on the ocean, brave men and new lands. It took me a few seconds, but then I realized they had been talking about Christopher Columbus and his voyages to what would become the New World. “Brave men” out on missions of “discovery.” My cognitive gears slowly began to churn as I thought about all of the implications and ramifications of what had been presented as a children’s story. My son is the child of two anthropologists who have politically left do I deal with what, to the daycare provider is an innocent and simple tale?

Based on my experience with anthropology and archaeology, Columbus is a central symbol of the expansion of the Western World and the annihilation of the peoples who were in the way of “progress” and “development.” I’m not going to go into details here (almost countless superior sources would serve the reader much better), but Columbus quickly and easily symbolizes genocide, ethnocide, economic and social inequality and basic suffering of much of the world for much of the last 500 years. So, the real story behind Columbus Day is complicated and deeply disturbing. How do I communicate that to my three year old son?

The more I ponder this dilemma, the more I realize my neglect of certain basic issues in anthropology. While I’ve been teaching anthropology on a full-time or close to full-time basis for almost a decade and repeatedly discussed the “learned” nature of culture, I haven’t put much effort into considering the actual social and cultural mechanisms of that transmission during childhood. How exactly do children begin to internalize cultural values, beliefs and assumptions? I guess I need to take a course in child psychology. Also, if any reader of this post knows of a good piece of anthropology that examines children’s learning in cross-cultural contexts, I’d appreciate a comment letting me know.

In this case, Columbus Day presents an important origin myth about Western “civilization” in general, and the United States in particular. Origins myths simplify complex, multifaceted cultural beliefs into an accessible memorable story that is easily told, in this case to children, much like a guided-cultural missile directed at kids. Several primary cultural values and assumptions were built into the DNA of the story that my son has been learning. Columbus’s individual effort and suffering resulted in his fame and success. His discovery allowed for US history to begin and unfold as a tale of progress and triumph. Ideas that are at the very core of whatever is American culture.

And, these ideas largely represent an ideology that perpetuates Western/American culture and masks the ugliness of history discussed in a previous paragraph. It presents the millions of people already in the hemisphere as some kind of natural residue that serves as a minor impediment to the growth of European-American societies.

I still have vivid memories of my mother watching a local news segment about a Native American protest about the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. My mother was offended by what she saw as ingratitude--”look at everything they’ve got now.” The implication being that everything they “got” was from their free-loading on the rocket of progress that was US history. Needless to say, I don’t want my children to ever internalize such beliefs.

As a parent, I’m unsure how to proceed. Do I request the daycare provider stop discussing Columbus? In doing this, I fear my and his being labeled as part of that “strange” family that’s too politically correct. As a parent who’s looking out for his complete mental welfare, I don’t want him labeled as any kind of deviant in his little social world. But, as an informed person who wants to promote fairness and equality, I don’t want another human internalizing a myth that does at some level glorify the decimation and suffering of millions of people in the Americas and beyond.

But, does ignorance of this “story” actually help my son? Shouldn’t I try to untangle the myth so that he can come to an informed understanding as well? But, he’s 3 and doesn’t quite “get” complexity and nuance.

As I was writing this post, I spoke with a colleague who offered his advice, which I value because we share some relevant social roles and statuses--both being a father and archaeologist/anthropologist. His children are older than mine and he suggested to let my son know, in a simple way, from an early age that there are different stories about the past and he might notice differences between what he hears at home vs. in school. And, if he ever runs into serious problems with teachers or other administrators about his understanding of history, that I would “have his back” and talk to those folks myself. Seems like good advice. In my more idealistic moods, I like to think that I parent with honesty and open communication and this seems in line with that.


  1. Very interesting post--thank you for addressing these issues. It made me think of an essay by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, "Good Day, Columbus" in Silencing the Past. Trouillot argues that celebrating Columbus was part of how Italians and Irish sought full whiteness. I say a bit about this in a post called Everybody’s working through the weekend...

  2. Late to the party here, but I've gotta say it seems you're overthinking this, for lack of a better term. It's a complex issue, yes - Columbus and his successors set in motion a process that would bring death and destruction to many (most?) native cultures, but at the same time, the adorable American professor's child pictured in your headline wouldn't be here without him...nor would the university, the society that supports it, etc. IMO, an event may be worthy of historical remembrance (as opposed to celebration, etc.) solely on the basis of its influence on later events, without any value judgment thus being implied.

    In other words, your students are right - take the day off, but nix the parades and whatnot.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment. Though I disagree with your perspective, it did provide me the opportunity to sharpen some of my thoughts on my original post.

    I think you make a very interesting point about the difference between commemoration vs. celebration in holidays. They don’t have to do both. And, you’re correct that this contact between Europe and the Americas marks one of the most important hinge points in world history. However, when I think about American holidays, it seems our style to celebrate, even when it’s primarily about commemorating. Veteran’s, Memorial, June 6, Pearl Harbor, Patriot (9/11) days all memorialize, but with a definite tinge of the inevitability of America’s victory. None commemorate in the sense of atonement. All nation-states operate according to some ideology of identity and “imagined community,” and that of the US tends to emphasize the idea of American Exceptionalism and progress. I think Columbus Day is no different--it’s a narrative of triumph. I want my sons to question such ethnocentric cultural stories.

    As far as “overthinking” goes, I’m a fan of it. One person’s overthinking is another’s critical examination. I want my sons to value taking a hard look at seemingly mundane things (and if you thought I overthought this one, there are some other posts on this site that would really annoy you).

    And, if any topic deserves to be thought about a lot, it’s genocide. Such processes should be understood and remembered so that future peoples are less likely to commit more. I know that it’s much more complicated than that and that we’ve had genocides despite calls to “never forget,” but not forgetting is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for future prevention. I’d like my sons to understand that humans can be capable of horrible things and from that knowledge, I hope they contribute to human activities that preserve human lives and the dignity of other ways of life.

    And as far as the existence of my job and son being dependent on Columbus and all that came after, yes, you’re technically correct. However, I don’t think that’s enough of a reason to not be highly critical of past atrocities. Bear with me for a quick example. I know that bringing Nazis into an online discussion is a cliché, but here it’s actually appropriate. Nazi actions before and during WWII clearly caused demographic transformations in subsequent years. I’m sure people met and had children that never would have in an alternative, Nazi-free timeline. However, the existence of those children doesn’t mean one can’t criticize the actions of the Nazis. It’s a case of means and ends. I am quite fond of the ends that I’ve been dealt, but that doesn’t mean I have to look away from some of the nasty means that got me here.

    It’s for all these reasons that I’m left a bit put off that my son was learning a myth of Columbus Day that portrays a heroic effort, which masks the very real human destruction that would be left in that effort’s wake. I would feel lacking as a parent if I didn’t make a value judgement on that.