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HistoryNet sat down with Eric Weider, World History Group’s CEO and Publisher, to discuss the best ways to pass on an appreciation of history from parent to child. Eric cited his own childhood role models as well as how he plans to pass his own love of history and historical icons to his own family. If you have any similar stories to share about how you discuss history in your own home, please share in the comments!


HistoryNet: In the past you’ve mentioned the important role your father played in bringing history to your dinner table in your childhood and spurring your life-long interest in history. What advice would you give to parents who want to engage their children in discussions about historical figures, especially when everyone is gathered together at the dinner table?

Eric Weider: I think it’s important to have some planned conversation time at the dinner table at least a couple of times a week. You need to think of topics in advance that you as a parent want your kids exposed to while they’re growing up. Exactly how you do this depends, of course, on the age of your kids. But one way to do it is to have one night a week be “history night” at your dinner table. You can incorporate a quiz or challenge into this. People of all ages love quizzes. For example, one week you may talk about a president and why you admire him, and then give your kids a challenge to memorize the first 10 presidents by next week’s history night. You can award prizes for success or just enthusiastic praise—whatever suits your family philosophy.

I have a 10-year-old sister-in-law I always give history and geography quiz challenges to and she loves them. One thing she is particularly proud of is knowing the first 10 presidents by heart. When we have dinner with adult guests I always find a way to ask, “Say, does anyone here know the first 10 presidents of the United States?” Of course no one ever does. Then I ask my young sister-in-law and she proudly stands up and recites them. My 15-year-old brother-in-law memorized the Gettysburg Address in a similar way. The 10 year old and I are working on knowing the names and locations of all 50 states right now. It doesn’t matter so much what they learn … it’s more the idea that they need to learn and the pride they feel from learning and showing their knowledge. You want to inculcate curiosity and learning as a life-long value and habit. To that end I also like to ask a lot of “Why” and “What” questions. “Why do you think our national capitol is Washington D.C.?” “What do you think D.C. means?” “Why did they pick the word Columbia?”

HistoryNet: Specific to the dinner table, how do you start a conversation and lead it into discussions about interesting historical figures?

Eric Weider:  This really depends on how old the child is. If you have a 12- or 13-year-old, I think that’s old enough to start to weave in current events and history. First, you have to make a habit of talking about the news and world events. You and your old-enough child can watch the news together on a designated day or two a week. You can try to simplify some events that might be complex. Then to weave in history, for example, you can ask, “Why do you think Russia is so interested in Ukraine and Crimea?” You can then talk about the centuries of fighting over Crimea because of its key Black Sea port. You can discuss the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” And you can talk about the former Russian Empire and, “by the way, there you have an example of an early and very powerful female ruler, Catherine the Great.”

Or if your kids are mature enough you could discuss the current turmoil in the Middle East in context of the end of World War I, the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the Europeans drawing new borders without regard for the intense tribal affiliations that existed and still exist. You could further draw analogies to the Shia/Sunni war with the same experience that Christianity went through between Protestants/Catholics and the 30 Years War. You can also discuss tribalism and how powerful a force that is. And tribalism isn’t just for “them.” It affects us, too. The USA’s strongest alliances are with Canada, UK, New Zealand and Australia—all English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon countries. No surprise there. We are still tribal, too.

HistoryNet: You now have your own very young son and are no doubt introducing him to the wonderful world of history. Can you share some of your strategies for introducing infants and toddlers to history?

Eric Weider:  Well, there are some good books about historical figures that we read to him every night before bed. Of course, at 11 months he can’t understand yet, but he is developing the habit of seeing books and images of historical people. He’ll recognize Lincoln’s tall black hat by the time he can read, for sure. I also have paintings and pictures of historical people around the house and of my grandfather in military uniform in his room. I had a few cute historical characters painted on his wall too. I make a point of walking him around and showing him some of these pictures daily and saying their names in a very warm tone of voice. As he gets old enough to understand I will pick one picture a day and tell him a one-minute story about that person.

HistoryNet: What about older children such as middle- and high-school students? Do you have any experience in your personal life helping to share historical lessons with older children?

Eric Weider:  As a collector of historical artifacts I find that showing older kids/teens things helps pique their interest. If you don’t have or can’t afford real artifacts (many are not all that expensive) you can buy copies of some things very inexpensively. A copy of the Constitution on the wall of his room is a good example. A picture of Patton or some other dynamic figure is a good one too. My dad had inexpensive paintings of Vikings in my room from the age of five, and I still have them!

Also—and I know this is controversial for some people—but I am a believer in doing whatever is necessary to get kids reading books. So I offer my teenage brother-in-laws money to read a book and discuss it with me after. My father did this with me when I was very young and it developed in me the habit of reading. I consider the habit of reading one of the most important and valuable habits a person can have.

HistoryNet: For those of us a bit older, how do you keep history fresh and interesting in a world of a million distractions? Why should we keep learning about the past, even as adults?

Eric Weider: Some people wear bow ties as their personal trademark, others wear pockets squares or flamboyant shirts. I’m a low-key guy, so none of those things work for me. What I do enjoy is wearing small (one-inch diameter) political campaign buttons on my jacket lapel. I have them of Lincoln, Ike, JFK, etc. Many of these are easily found online for just a few dollars. They’re a good conversation starter about history with all kinds of random people.

Learning about the past is really learning about people. What more interesting thing is there than learning about people’s lives and gaining valuable life lessons from them? My father was a classic depression-era, 7th-grade dropout who went to work young out of necessity. Everything he learned he learned from history and biography books. He was self-taught and one of the smartest people I ever knew. Reading and learning history is without a doubt a highly valuable and interesting use of your time. It was, in fact, Winston Churchill’s advice to any young person seeking to better themselves, “Study History, study history, study history!” (Brian, I’d change person to people to agree with “them”selves.)

HistoryNet: We know one of your heroes is George Washington. Are there any lessons to be drawn from his life about the value of education and understanding of history?

Eric Weider:  The main lesson I learn from Washington and would seek to pass on to my child is the importance of values and leadership. You can substitute whatever historical figure you personally relate to. I keep a portrait of Washington by my front door so I see him when I leave home, and even if it’s for a split second he serves as a reminder, a touchstone, about being the kind of person/leader I know I want to be but sometimes in the pressures of the day we forget. Sometimes that Washington reminder can even make a difference in how I drive—whether I am patient, allow another car to cut in, etc. I show my son his portrait every day, and when he is older I’ll start to explain who Washington was and why I keep the portrait in the house and use it to have conversations about the importance of developing values and convictions so that you may steer your personal ship through the various things that always show up to blow us off course.