Talking to Kids about MLK Jr.


Black History Month. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Small Children.

It’s a bit of an intimidating combination, right?

I must admit, this is one of the times when I do feel lucky that we have a mixed race family – I’ve known from the start that I would need to talk, very clearly and very explicitly, about race and skin color and why some people look different from others and what that means in a larger context. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away with just including books that happened to have pictures including people from all sorts of different backgrounds and never mentioning that discrimination is a real thing that we need to teach ourselves to recognize and avoid. I knew I would have to give my daughters the tools to protect themselves against those who would mistreat them because of the way they look, and the very first part of that is teaching them how to recognize when people are treating them poorly.

Here’s the thing: talking about race and discrimination with kids is awkward and uncomfortable and you absolutely have to do it. The reason? This quote from Nurtureshock nails it: “…the implicit message, ‘We’re all friends,’ is too vague for young children to understand that it refers to skin color.”

So how do you break through the awkwardness to get to the important message we remember on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Here are some tips:

  • Be explicit: You’ll probably be tempted to tiptoe around the subject of slavery. Don’t. You’re the best judge of what level of complexity your kid can handle, but you really should try to use an example that they can understand. Here are some ways I’ve talked about it in our house – “People who had pink skin like me used to think that it was okay to buy and sell someone with brown skin like daddy, just like you might buy and sell a couch or a bicycle or a pack of stickers. Sometimes they would buy a brown-skinned child and take her away from her parents; they didn’t even worry if it made her sad. Sometimes they would buy a brown-skinned man and make him work hard outside all day with no breaks. And since they thought that buying a brown-skinned person was just like buying a pack of stickers, they didn’t even think to pay them for the work they did.”
  • Make it personal: It really helps if you can use someone your child knows well as an example, whether it’s a family member, a school friend, or a television character. Make sure you use an example of someone who you know that they really love, and whose feelings they care about. In our house, we usually talk about daddy or Nana or PopPops – “Even after they stopped buying and selling brown-skinned people like stickers, there was a long time when people were still really, really mean to people just because of the color of their skin. Someone who looked like Nana wouldn’t be able to eat in the same restaurants as someone who looked like Grandma Nita – if she tried, she would get in big trouble, and maybe even be put in jail! Someone who looked like PopPops would get paid much less for doing the same job as someone who looked like Grandpa Jim. And sometimes, for no reason at all, people would call someone with brown skin like daddy really mean names, and they might even beat him up and hurt his body on purpose, just because of the color of his skin.”
  • Teach empathy: Just telling the stories isn’t enough, either. Ask them questions like, “how would you feel if you found out someone had called your daddy names and beat him up?” “How does it feel when someone takes a toy from you, or calls you a mean name? Can you imagine if everyone thought that was okay to do all the time just because of the way you looked?” “How would you want someone to treat you after something like that happened?”
  • Make it relevant: Make sure they know that racism didn’t just disappear with desegregation. If you can’t point to explicit examples like we can (“even when daddy was in high school, there were still kids who thought it was okay to call him mean names. Even now, when daddy and I go out together, there are people who think it is yucky and bad that he and I are married, just because our skin is different colors.”), take advantage of the things that your child might see happening in his or her own world. Even at the age of 4, many kids are already splitting up into friends groups according to gender, for example – you can take examples like that and intensify them. “You know how sometimes, at preschool, the boys only want to play with other boys, and the girls only want to play with other girls? Imagine if it was actually against the rules for the boys to play with the girls. Now imagine if the boys even had to go to a different school than the girls, and, what’s more, the boys’ school was dirty, and small, and falling apart, and the girls’ school was new and fancy and everyone got a free iPad just because they were a girl. How do you think the boys would feel? What do you think they could do to make it stop?”
  • Talk about the way Martin Luther King Jr. worked to combat discrimination: The easiest time to bring this up is when your kid asks, “why don’t we have school today?” If you’ve already talked about discrimination, this actually becomes pretty easy. “Do you remember when I told you about how mean pink-skinned people used to be to brown-skinned people? And how it was a really scary and sad thing for the brown-skinned people to be hurt that way? Martin Luther King Jr. was a brown-skinned man who decided that he really wanted that to stop. Of course, lots of brown-skinned people wanted it to stop, but Martin Luther King Jr. had some really good ideas about what to do if someone tried to be mean to him because of the color of his skin. Do you want to know what he did? If someone told him he couldn’t do something because of the color of his skin, he would do it. And if someone tried to yell at him, or call him names, or even beat him up and put him in jail, he would just stay calm and quiet. He didn’t hit anyone back, he didn’t yell, he didn’t call them names. He just let them yell and hurt him and kept on doing the things that he knew he should be allowed to do. He knew that he was just as special and as important as any pink-skinned person, even with his brown skin.”
  • Help them practice advocacy: Kids aren’t born knowing how to protect the people around them from being victimized. You’ll need to tell them what to do, and how to do it safely, if they see that someone is being mistreated because of the color of their skin. Of course, the one that is easiest is to teach them to find a trusted adult and tell them what is happening. You also can teach them to, for example, step in and say to the perpetrator, “you aren’t being nice,” or, “that’s not the way good friends treat each other.” You can teach them to approach the victim and say, “I think you are a good person. I’m going to stay here with you – it’s harder for someone to pick on two people than it is for them to pick on one.” If the discrimination is happening to someone your child knows well, you can teach them to talk about things that the victim and the perpetrator have in common, saying things like, “You guys both love to watch the Little League World Series with your families. Why are you being mean to someone who is just like you?”
  • Lead by example: Become an advocate yourself. If you notice a black person getting eyeballed by a security guard as he walks into a store, don’t be afraid to say something, either to the security guard or the person being profiled. Don’t put up with racist or sexist jokes – they aren’t funny to the person who is objectified by them. Be tolerant yourself – strike up a friendly conversation with someone who looks different from you. Do it in front of your kids, and also do it when no one is there to see. Learn to recognize white privilege and call it out when you see it. Your kids are watching you, listening even when you think they aren’t.

You can really make a difference in the lives of your children and the lives of members of your community by choosing to be active in advocacy – and you’d be surprised how much of an impact calling for a stop to things like name-calling can have, even for the youngest among us. Don’t believe me? Check out this exercise done with third graders:


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