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My Nephew Is Teaching Me to Have Difficult Conversations

Or why this Thanksgiving I’ll be celebrating Big Family Dinner Day

My six-year-old nephew doesn’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving.

He’s happy to gather with family and gorge himself on turkey. What upsets him is the meaning behind the holiday itself.

And so, bold personality that he is, he has asked our family not to call the holiday Thanksgiving but instead refer to it as Big Family Dinner Day.

As you might imagine, not everyone is happy about his request.

Fresh off his first year in school, my nephew has recently become more aware of life outside of our family. In the past year, he’s learned about the settlement of America and the mistreatment of Native People that happened along with the westward expansion of European settlers. Learning that anyone could be so cruel to anyone else was difficult for him.

He also learned that the first Thanksgiving is one chapter in the story of the relationship between our nation’s settler’s and its native people—even though traditionally, Thanksgiving itself is not one of the darker chapters. He does not want to celebrate any part of a relationship that led to such terrible treatment down the road.

In his own logical way, he’s removed what he does not like about the holiday and kept what remains distinctive to him. The origin and history connoted by the word Thanksgiving are upsetting, but there is nothing inherently wrong with the holiday. It is a day for family to gather and have a big meal.

I can’t speak to how much is his original thinking vs. school vs. ideas from TV, but I admire his tenacity in speaking up for what he thinks is right.

And I support him for a couple of reasons.

  1. I like the idea of supporting my nephew’s feelings and opinions at a young age. It teaches him that he is important and valued. And his views on holiday traditions are just as important as those of grown-ups.
  2. He’s pretty on-point in his name. Thanksgiving may have started as a somewhat religious holiday that celebrated bounty and harvest, but as more people move to different cities than their birth family, Thanksgiving really has transitioned to a holiday for returning home for a big meal. Big Family Dinner Day is a pretty accurate descriptor for what happens.

 

My parents are not as amenable to the change. They think the day has always been Thanksgiving, and it should not change. They haven’t shared their reasons for this opinion, but I can speculate. Holidays are about tradition, and it often feels wrong to change those traditions. There is something comforting about awaiting the approach of the predictable—pulling out the same gold star for the Christmas tree, cooking Aunt Wendy’s cherry pie.

And maybe also at play, my nephew is advocating for a switch in dynamics. Often with holidays, the older generation passes down traditions to the younger. My nephew wants to reject my parents’ system to start his own. They finally have a grandchild to share their holidays with only to find out that grandchild doesn’t approve of the way they celebrate.

But he’s not rejecting them. He’s finding his own voice and his own way of processing world events that are difficult for him to understand. And letting him have this victory is a way of fighting back against the ugliness he associates with the holiday.

In a way, what he’s asking for is innocent and naïve, but it’s also beautiful and elegant.

My nephew is seeking control over a world he is starting to realize he cannot control.

Issues of culture, oppression, dark history, are difficult to talk about and difficult to live with. People like real, practical steps they can take in the face of insurmountable, inconceivable evil and tragedy. We give blood in record numbers after a natural disaster. We hold candles at vigils after a shooting. It comforts us to act. I imagine the practical is even more helpful for children who have less experience processing how chaotic and difficult our world can be.

My nephew has only this year learned that some groups of people oppress other groups of people. I wish he didn’t have to learn such things. If this small action makes him feel like a warrior instead of a helpless bystander, I celebrate it.

My nephew is half Japanese. One day, he will learn that his mother’s ancestors put his father’s ancestors in internment camps. Any coping strategies he can develop in the meantime, should be embraced.

He’s not changing the world. But he’s making himself feel better. He’s learning how to process difficult issues. And pushing our family to discuss difficult topics. These are skills we will need when he has questions about the history of his two cultures and what one of them did to the other not so long before he was born.

He will have big questions some day, and I don’t think I’ll have the answers, but I want to be open to answers he finds, especially ones that make him feel strong.      

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