Do you have kids old enough to be asking about who Martin Luther King Jr. was?
Today is the National holiday that we take to observe this lion of a man, but some of your kids might already be asking about who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and why we celebrate his birthday as a holiday.
You might tell yourself that you don’t need to get into the specifics of Martin Luther King Jr., but it’s just not enough to be “color blind” and let me tell you why:
Although we live in a predominately white area, my children have friends of many ethnicities: Mexican, Guatemalan, Latin Americans of all flavors, Pacific Islander, and African American. However, while on vacation in Florida (a considerably more diverse state than our own) my son observed, “So many people are wearing their dark skin, mom.”
“Wearing.” Nice one, mom, way to teach your kids.
We had a conversation about how people come in all different colors, shapes, and backgrounds. How we’re a combination of a lot of ethnicities. Why we speak Spanish at Nana and Abuelo’s house, but not at Grandma’s house. Kids are remarkably perceptive, and with your input, they can deal appropriately with the differences they see–learning to see differences as normal, not as something that determines a person’s value.
What you’ll say depends on your children, their maturity, and your family background. Seek information beyond your experiences.
Diversity, racism, and other ways we exclude or include people (such as religion) should be up for discussion when you feel your child is ready. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking your child isn’t ready. By the time they are school-aged, children are perfectly capable of observing people and sorting them according to their own scale.
CivilRights.org suggests the following for children aged 5-8:
A Few Things You Can Do to Raise Children Who are Comfortable with Diversity
- Populate our lives, and the lives of our children, with friends of diverse backgrounds. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in integrated neighborhoods. Others may want to consider enrolling their children in after school or weekend activities, such as sports leagues, that are integrated.
- Choose books and toys that include persons of different races and ethnicities.
- Visit museums that feature exhibits about a variety of cultures and religions.
- Celebrate cultural events and attend religious services with friends of different faiths.
- Invite others to share your cultural and religious experiences.
- Get involved in your child’s school.
Last year, when my child asked for the first time about Martin Luther King Jr., I told him that he was a great man who encouraged us to treat other people like we would treat ourselves. That at a time when people hated each other for the color of their skin, he had to fight to help people understand that we’re all the same inside, that he made America a better place. We celebrate the Doctor’s birthday by giving service to our fellow man, by doing something right, and loving the differences that make us all beautiful people.
The truth is that our kids will have to learn about our country’s ugly history of race at some point.
Soon I’ll have to talk about slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and Emmett Till . Someday I’ll have to discuss Plessy vs. Ferguson, Dred Scott, and Brown vs. Board of Education. Then we’ll have to talk about institutional racism and white privilege.
Those painful topics are too much for my young child today, but by not addressing those issues at some point, we do our children a disservice. My children are lucky: these are talks that we have, probably not experiences they’ll have. You are the parent, this is one of those things that you have to talk about.
Thoughtfully consider your child’s age, maturity, and background. Gently guide a discussion, and remember to be the best example. Start by talking to kids about Martin Luther King Jr. Show them the pictures, ask them what they think, help them understand why we observe this day.
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