Friday, July 4, 2008

Explaining colonialism

While showering this morning I was working on a little project - trying to decide how I would explain colonialism to my seven year-old niece, CMR. Today is the day when we celebrate America's Independence from the British, and I got to thinking how one might explain an abstract concept like national independence to a child. This whole train got rolling last night when BMG and I went to see a fireworks display after a minor league baseball game. I heard myself quietly singing the national anthem during the 30 minute series of colorful & chest rumbling explosions. When I got to the line that sings, "And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there." Why do we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks? Is it to symbolize the Revolutionary War battles fought by our founding fathers (while the founding mothers were wisely at home avoiding the barbarism by making cookies and sewing flags)? Is it merely because fireworks give people joy? Is it because fireworks are Chinese and we're a nation of immigrants? If anyone has reflections on THIS question, I welcome them gladly.

With this as the backdrop surrounding me as I showered, I began to toy with a strategy for explaining the American war of independence. These questions started to loll about in my brain. How do children understand freedom? How do you explain what it means to be a nation of laws? How do you even explain land ownership? How do you convey when it is okay to fight back when you think laws or rules are unfair or hurting other people? What makes it okay for the colonists to fight against the British, but not okay for the Iraqi insurgents to fight the Americans currently perceived to be colonizing their nation? How is war explained to children of privilege versus children without essential rights and freedoms?

Soaking wet in the shower, buzzing from one cup of espresso, I became overwhelmed. I became overwhelmed not by the questions (these I found stimulating), but by the realization that seven year-olds are learning about the rules that create boundaries in their worlds. They are still concrete thinkers who understand their social interactions in terms of black and white. On one side of a line on a map is Canada, and on the other is America. That's a good enough explanation. So I don't need to explain colonialism to her in order for her to understand Independence Day today. I could tell her that we didn't like the laws made up by the British, so we decided to become our own country. And we had to have a pretty long and scary fight to do it. And the first Americans had lots of conversations about the rules they did want to have to keep our country safe and happy. And today we celebrate their decision to make their own country and the rules they created. The end. I wish she were here right now so I could tell her this. But she is 325 miles away, likely playing computer games or Wii with her four year-old sister, getting ready for her Gammy and cousin M and Uncle TK to come for a party at her house.


When CMR gets a little older and can understand abstract thought I'll be able to have philosophical conversations with her about the meaning of freedom and privilege and independence. And that will be fun.

In the meantime, I'm off to make Rice Krispie Treats for a little bar-b-que where we will enjoy eating hot dogs, drinking beer, and being American.

Happy fourth of July!

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