At What Age Can We Introduce Children to Honest History?

Note: The following is a guest blog from David Turnoy, a retired elementary school teacher with a degree in history. His new book, American Tales, is an account of US history from explorers through Reconstruction, written as fiction to be more engaging to kids while still including the balanced historical account for which he advocates. It is available now at Amazon and other bookselling websites.

Teaching American history to children presents a number of challenges. For any progressive student or observer of history, it is well-known that the United States has had a mixed record in its treatment of Native Americans, African Americans, women and other groups, including some especially cruel treatment. How young is too young for children to start learning about this history?

I taught fifth grade for many years, and this was an issue that I had to grapple with, especially as fifth grade was the first time that students were introduced to American history. For myself and for students, I have found that we tend to regard the first information we learn about a particular subject as the baseline, and the way the brain works, all subsequent information is taken in by making connections to this original information and judged in light of it. Also, according to child psychologist Craig Thorsen of Eugene, OR, information learned earlier tends to be remembered better. Therefore, if a teacher is going to teach history to students for the first time, the information chosen for presentation to the students is crucial.

So what information should be taught? Should it be the traditional bland summary showing America as always in the right, led by truly admirable heroes who bring about change while leaving out any negative actions, which leads to disinterested, unquestioning citizens who allow government and other elites to do as they like? Or should it be a more balanced, honest approach including actions by the US that aren’t the most laudable and also including actions of common people banding together working for a better country? The purpose in teaching this latter way is to present kids with an honest account of our history so they can better understand circumstances today, which then guides them in making better-informed decisions that will hopefully lead to a brighter future. Another purpose is to show students that they actually have power to make positive change when they band together, thus encouraging them to become more active, vigilant citizens. If we want a better country with more equality and justice, this is where it starts.

So how young is too young? The American Academy of Pediatrics says that research shows that appropriately mature adolescents, guided by a helpful adult who assists them in exploring the real costs and consequences of violence, can learn about violent historical actions without a problem. This has the added benefit of creating students who will question our leaders the next time they push for war. Especially at the grade level I taught, 10 and 11-year-olds, the children have a real sense of right and wrong, justice, and fair play. When I taught controversial topics, especially ideas left out of traditional texts, the kids became more engaged and we had vibrant discussions. According to Dr. Thorsen, children age 10 and up are able to dissociate themselves from gruesome violence when presented in historical context or as part of a story or lesson. For an example of how this is handled appropriately by a teacher, see my book American Tales, where the students are taught this fact in historical context.

So when is it appropriate to teach honest history? I advocate teaching it the first time history is taught. This information will be the baseline information for children as they grow and learn more information, they will remember it better, they will be more engaged and interested in honest history than the bland facts normally offered in traditional texts, and they will ask more questions and require our leaders to justify decisions and act more responsibly. Now I would not advocate teaching about the Holocaust to first graders; teachers have to use common sense. But by fourth and fifth grade, students are ready for more mature topics if guided by a responsible teacher who allows the students to examine the topic, especially in light of what is fair and just, while avoiding traumatizing these young minds. This is the approach I used in my teaching, and I would encourage other teachers to do the same.


0 Replies to “At What Age Can We Introduce Children to Honest History?”

  1. Hi from, the website of an Australian coalition of historians and others promoting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history during the centenary of World War I. On teaching war to children see Australia Australia is now experiencing an overwhelming flood of military history, particularly built around the centenary of our Gallipoli campaign in 1915, which began the Anzac myth or legend. While our group recognises the importance of Anzac we argue strongly also that there are other equally important parts of our history which need recognition. There has been for 25 years here a strong government effort to teach military history to children, starting as young as 9 years old, though the version of history taught in primary schools tends to be sanitised. It is interesting to read David Turnoy’s view on this and encouraging that he advocates honesty from the beginning. His view that the first version tends to be the one that persists supports the gut feeling that many of us have. David Stephens; plese browse our site and make contact with us!

  2. With the influx of violence on television and in movies, I don’t understand the question. If students as young as 8 or 9 watch “R” rated movies at home with their parents, why can’t they get the whole truth about the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans? I agree with the author. . . tell the truth the first time. They can handle it.

  3. The very first time history is taught, the truth needs to be told. Why hide it from them? Students need to learn how far our nation has come.

  4. When history is presented from the start as “that which happened” instead of as an advertising campaign for nationalism it makes it easier to add complexity later on – not harder. Kids who grow up knowing that history is full of all sorts of actions, and that people do the wrong thing from time to time everywhere, are able to deal with the fact that a thing done 200 years ago that is still hurting people now – needs to be be talked about. They can cope with the idea that things from the past have repercussions today – and that they personally did not do those things. That their responsibility lies with what they choose to do about that past.

    And here’s a piece that gets left out of history classes – a fact of inheritance that ought to shape this conversation. Our experiences change the code we pass on to our kids. The body has a set of heritable switches that determine a lot of how our bodies work.

    Oppression harms multiple generations of people. I don’t mean in a social sense although that’s true as well. Trauma causes changes to the inheritable genetic switches that run our bodies. The states of those genomic switches is passed down through the generations.

    When a person experiences a famine, their body will change it’s basic functioning to adapt. Those genomic changes are passed down to future generations. This is not evolution is a DNA sense. Only the switch states (the genomics) are being passed on.

    So if (for instance) a few generations of your ancestors lived through bad famines – then you would have genomic changes from your ancestors experiences that would make it easier for your body to adapt to famines. It likely that some of those genomic switches switches would already be in the “famine” state. A person can inherit a genomic issue with gaining weight a bit too easily because of a family history.

    If your parents were exposed to really nasty pollution (like in coal mining) then the genomic changes that the exposure caused are passed on from one generation to the next for a while. And the genomic states involved in Post Traumatic Stress are also passed on to future generations.

    Those who have PTSD from horrible experiences have children who are prewired for PTSD related conditions. ACcording to current simple animal studies those people’s distant generational offspring could still be prewired for PTSD up to 420 years (14 generations) later.

    So what things did people’s ancestors experience withing the last 420 years. Genomic states do “get over” the biochemical results of life.

    So… how long has it been since the survivors were carried out of Auschwitz? It’s less than 420 years.

    How long has it been since Native Americans were in the middle of a genocide? How long has it been since it was legal for the ancestors of black Americans to be bought and sold and bred for slavery?
    None of those things has stopped having genomic effects. Neither have the Great Depression, Desert Storm, the Korean War, WWII, WWI, the US Revolutionary War or the English Civil War.

    Now think about the genomic results of Monsanto and DuPont and it’s cost to human heath. Think about 420 years of genomic side effects from the Hundred Years War; from McCarthyism, from Gunboat Diplomacy; from the rise of the Second Klan.

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