Explaining Martin Luther King, Jr. to Children


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. 

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr. 
I didn’t expect to teach my children about the civil rights movement at ages three and five, but perhaps I was misguided to think small people couldn’t, or shouldn’t, know about such important issues. I also didn’t consider that there’s a way to talk about these topics so kids can understand. I wish I could say that I had read a whole bunch of parenting books on how to do this, but honestly, I winged it.

It started out when I picked up R from school on Friday. The note for the day indicated that they had talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. in anticipation of the holiday today. On the drive home, I asked R what they had learned about Dr. King. In between reading a book and yelling with his little sister, he explained that Dr. King was a man who talked about things people were doing wrong and then someone hurt him. Which, of course, got G all aflutter. Why was he hurt, she asked?

Now, here I was merging onto the highway, with a choice. Change the subject and ask about show and tell, or explain Dr. King’s legacy. Since I had brought up the topic, I went with legacy, telling them that the Dr. King had been a preacher and a daddy, a brave man who wanted everyone to understand that, no matter what we looked like on the outside, inside we are all the same and deserve love and respect. Dr. King wanted peace and he wanted people to be kind to one another. G, true to form, wanted to know more about Dr. King’s children. R wanted to know more about why Dr. King had been hurt. And who had hurt him. And why the police hadn’t stopped the people who hurt him.

I explained that Dr. King had died because people didn’t like how he was saying that people with different color skin were equal and should be treated the same. I lost R at this point and not because Dr. King had died. Instead, he was confused about skin color. But, Mama, he said, people are all the same color. I wondered then, and still do wonder, was his remark born of naiveté? Do we not have enough diverse people in our children’s lives? Or, rather, did my son’s comment come from a purity of spirit? A color blindness based in knowing people for who they are as people, not how they looked on the outside?

I hope it’s the latter; I hope we are showing them a world of differences and how differences can make us all stronger and better. So, I emphasized that Dr. King wanted peace and love for all people. What did Dr. King wanted, I asked them more than once? Peace and love, Mama, they said. Peace and love. Making sure they know this philosophy–and live these words–is the best way, at least at this point in their lives, to honor Dr. King.


Photo credit: Giltronix via photopin cc

  1. January 21, 2013