Why Australia Day is difficult for me to explain to my kids

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt is the host of Kinderling Conversation.

There are a lot of family traditions I had growing up that mean a lot to me. Australia Day, however, was never a big thing in my house. Apart from a brief fling in my 20's (which involved parties and Triple J’s Hottest 100) it hasn’t been a significant part of my adult life either.

I’ve developed a distaste for nationalism. Through high school I learnt about its role in both World Wars, and as an adult I’ve seen it rear its ugly head closer to home (the stars of the Southern Cross have lost their sparkle for me).

But now I have children of my own, it’s not something I can ignore.

The problem is the date we celebrate what it is to be Australian. It’s giving me grief when it comes to teaching my kids where they come from.

Respected social researcher Neer Korn says that while most Australians don’t associate the day with its history, and many don’t even know what it means, the day is still “filled with meaning”.

Neer says, “Australians are deeply appreciative of where they are lucky enough to live and call home. They love this place. For one thing it’s peaceful and for the most part everyone gets along. It’s a free country where most people feel they are able to express themselves in any way they desire, as long as no one else gets hurt in the process. It’s a land of opportunity where a belief that hard work sees rewards still holds strong.”

Those are all good reasons to be proud of your country. And having a strong sense of belonging is good for everyone, especially children.

But if we continue to celebrate on January 26, then the day is not just about those things. It’s celebrating the “discovery” of Australia by Captain Cook, and the colonisation that followed it. It teaches our children that life in this country started in 1788, instead of tens of thousands of years before that. And I have a few issues with that.

The first is if you take this date as a day to celebrate what it means to be Australian, you also have to accept what sits alongside it. That is, the dispossession and massacre of the people who were here before us. How do we explain to our kids that at the same time that people are waving flags and having parties, others are grieving a loss that is difficult for non-indigenous people to fathom?

Katie Beckett is a playwright, actor and Mum to Marcus. When her son asked why they don’t celebrate Australia Day, her response was honest and harsh.

“I said for us there is nothing to celebrate. Where we are there’s these massacre sites where they buried these babies up to their necks, and then they used to go around and kick their heads like footballs.” 

Listen to Katie on Kinderling Conversation:

Like I said, difficult to fathom isn’t it?

On a more positive note, we are missing a huge opportunity to celebrate the ancient, rich and endlessly interesting history of the Indigenous people of Australia. Tourists come from around the world to marvel at rock paintings, to hear stories and to learn about cultures we have right here on our doorstep.

When I was growing up, Australia day was always about celebrating the first settlers. I feel like I missed out on so much knowledge and understanding by not learning about Indigenous culture.

Today we have the opportunity to do things differently.

At my son’s childcare centre Gumnut Gardens they celebrate the endurance of Indigenous culture in the lead up to Australia Day through “Survival Week”.

Educators Charlynn Lim and Liesel Murphy say, “We have devoted our entire week’s program to learning about Survival Week through books, film clips, cooking, discussions and experiences, led by our Indigenous Cultural Educator, Aunty Marion from Wiradjuri country. We have delved into topics such as why we say our Acknowledgement to Country.”

And how does this work out? Four-year-old Tilda says that Welcome to Country is important because “we have to say thank you because the Aboriginal people were here before us and they share their land”.

I’m not saying that we need to forget about the good things that Australia has achieved since 1788. I’m from convict stock, and I often feel my family must have some strong genes to have lasted through to the 21st century.

Celebrating both of these histories as part of what it means to be Australian might help our children build a strong bridge to reconciliation that we have so far failed to do. It might help to raise our children to be adults who can really do something about entrenched Indigenous disadvantage. Hell, they might even be able to close the gap.

We can be proud of our freedoms, our generosity and our general attitude to life. But it’s such a glaring contradiction to do this on a day that causes such pain to the First Nations of this country.

If, as Neer Korn suggests, the history of the day has little meaning to most Australians, why stick to the date?

Changing the date would not only remove the glaring contradiction of celebrating Australia Day on January 26, it could potentially move us forward to a brighter future.

And where’s the harm in that?