A Q&A with Amber O’Neal Johnston on teaching historical truth

Teaching our children historical truths isn’t just an option—it’s crucial for raising informed and empathetic children. No one knows that better than Amber O’Neal Johnston. Amber is a veteran homeschool mom of four children, the popular blogger and homeschool consultant over at HeritageMom.com, and author of the new book A Place to Belong. Because of her vast experience and knowledge on this topic, we asked her to share with us her ideas on teaching the most accurate version of history.

L+L: Amber, thank you for helping us discuss this important topic with fellow homeschoolers. We also want to congratulate you on your book, A Place to Belong. We know this topic is a passion for you. To begin, why is providing historical truth essential for all families, even if it’s a sad, uncomfortable, or embarrassing truth? 

AOJ: Children own the stories of their people, and we don’t have a right to withhold them. We are loving guides charged with helping our children navigate the world as they grow and mature, but that doesn’t mean that we can create false narratives in order to create a fairy tale story. Making the past seem sweeter (or whiter) than it really was is not something that serves children in any way. I can’t think of another subject where we would intentionally mislead our children and consider them well-educated. Eventually, the truth comes out and children are either angry at being coddled or lied to or stressed about the lack of knowledge they have about the past. And sometimes they remain in denial – digging in their heels while refusing to accept the truth because it’s so different from what they’ve always believed.

Another important reason that historical truths need to be shared is that understanding what happened before helps scaffold our children’s understanding of what they see and experience today. There simply is no way to process the complexities of today’s biggest societal issues without examining the past, and having a deep understanding of how we got here can provide some assurance that the next generation understands the grave consequences of some of our country and world’s darkest hours.

L+L: But defining historical “truth” can be tricky business. It seems like history is constantly changing. How do you respond to the concern that it’s impossible to teach true history? 

AOJ: While it’s true that historical evidence is constantly being uncovered and reevaluated, we still have a responsibility to our children to share the most accurate stories we can find. By relying on primary sources such as speeches, interviews, documents, and letters (and the books that rely on them), we can often remove the interpretation of a biased middleman. And when we seek a variety of sources and perspectives to gain an understanding of a situation or time period, we lessen the chances of serving our children contrived or one-sided interpretations of complex and multidimensional people, places, and things. I especially appreciate hearing from historians who disagree in some areas because when they agree on a point, I feel like that area of agreement is well thought-out and not gratuitous in any way.

Another point: Scientists often disagree, and scientific thought also changes frequently, yet people aren’t nearly as concerned about getting those lessons perfectly right for our children. I’ve often found myself explaining that some scientists have evidence of X while other scientists have found evidence to support Y. I think we can take that same approach with history when there is disagreement. Science often fails to elicit the same emotional responses because it feels like something that happens apart from our national, racial, or ethnic identities. But with history, even adults want to default to the easy narrative of good guys and bad guys, and no one wants to see themselves or their people cast in the bad guy role. When we inevitably personalize history in our current context we can begin to feel that the most comfortable option is to sugarcoat the truth in an effort to remain happy and hopeful, even if those feelings are built on lies or incomplete truths.

L+L: How can we teach difficult topics to our kids in a way that honors their sensitivities and their age?

AOJ: One way is by making sure that difficult topics are not taught in isolation. We should always aim to balance the bitter with the sweet. Yes, people have done horrific things to each other, but we’ve also created beautiful things and exhibited courage, innovation, creativity, and humility. As we tell the truth about the worst of who we’ve been and what we’ve experienced, we can also share the truth about the goodness and progress that we’ve contributed to over time. In my home, things like art, music, poetry, nature, and even food are all studied alongside hard history to give a more complete picture that leaves our children well-informed but hopeful and inspired. (See Chapter 10 of my book.)

And of course, there is no formal rule that any of us can apply for when to discuss certain topics. I think we should just make sure that when we hold back, we’re doing so because it’s truly best for the child in front of us and not merely convenient because we want to avoid difficult conversations. Each of my children have been able to handle difficult topics at different ages. They’re not all the same. One of my kids is a “tell me everything right now” kind of a kid and can handle the whole story with all of the details. Another one will cover up their ears if things get too intense. And a third child wants to know “all the things” but wants to read it on their own and then discuss it after having time to process. I have approached hard history differently with each one of them, but I’ve never withheld their own stories or the stories of others merely out of convenience.

L+L: How does our own bias come into play when teaching history to our kids, and how can we overcome that?

AOJ: Our personal bias plays a huge role in how history is presented to our kids. I think the first and best thing to do is to be honest and let our kids know that as much as we’d like to deny it, we each hold some sort of bias that is coloring our thoughts. I think the best way to overcome that is to read widely with our children so that our opinions don’t become the law. Varied reading and open discussion can prevent our bias from becoming so strong that we are indoctrinating more than guiding.

L+L: What do you wish more people knew about teaching history to children? 

AOJ: That it can be fun!!! When I was growing up, history was such a drag. I hated that class and vowed never to pick up another history book in my life once I graduated. And I was on my way to keeping that promise when I began homeschooling my children. It was through their books that I fell in love with the epic story of man, and my enthusiasm and passion was contagious. We all love getting lost in historical fiction books, taking trips to see historic sites, researching clothing and food from various eras, and learning all that we can about how people of different times lived, loved, and lost in a world that was so different and yet so similar to what we experience today.

Amber O'Neal Johnston, Author + Speaker
Amber O’Neal Johnston, Author + Speaker

Amber is an author, speaker, and worldschooling mama who blends life-giving books and a culturally rich environment for her four children and others seeking to do the same. She recommends we offer children opportunities to see themselves and others reflected in their lessons, especially throughout their books, and she’s known for sharing literary “mirrors and windows” on HeritageMom.com and @heritagemomblog on Instagram. Amber is also the author of A Place to Belong, a guide for families of all backgrounds to celebrate cultural heritage, diversity, and kinship while embracing inclusivity in the home and beyond.

Published by learnandliveletter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-11.

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