Talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. With Toddlers

Tomorrow we will be nestled in our house on the western coast of Alaska, baking a cake and celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Junior.  We're hundreds of miles away from the big celebrations and the cities where so many are honoring his work, but we hope to have his legacy a part of our lives and our home.

Our two-year-old son recognizes Martin Luther King's face and understands that he was a wonderful man.  Our son's face controted in worry when he first heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. was no longer alive, but relaxed when we told him that, while it is sad, it is okay for us to still remember and talk about him.

This is what I want my son to know at age two:

1.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a person with a mother and father and siblings who lived in Georgia.  He grew up and had his own family and children.

2.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a wonderful man who helped others do the right thing and was kind, fair, thoughtful and brave.

3.  The sounds of his speeches.

4.  What he looked like as a child and as an adult.

5.  He is someone very important in our lives who inspires us to do the right thing and that is why we celebrate his birthday.

It's simplistic - very simplistic, but my children are only one and two and I think that this level of introduction gives them the chance to grow up "knowing" him in a way that is meaningful for small children.

Studies show that race is something that children should be exposed to.  The simplistic messages that, "We are all people" and "We are all alike" don't give children the tools or language to explore and understand some of the differences that exist and some of the conflicts as we learn to grapple with issues of power and oppression.

However, right now my kids are very young so our conversations about race will not revolve around the difficulties and the negatives.  Right now we will foster positive relationships in front of our children, speak about people using the language that describes races and cultures, and share the stories of people speaking up, working together and problem solving to do the right thing.

My two-year-old knows, "Do the right thing".  It means returning the water bottle to his sister, saying, "Sorry", taking turns with the yellow dump truck and telling the truth.  My boy doesn't know what, "Do the right thing" means in the scheme of the Civil rights era and in today's political climate, but I wonder how important it is to elaborate at this point - being civil, kind, fair, thoughtful, and brave to do the right thing - what else can it mean that makes sense to a toddler?  Certainly not the words and behaviors exemplified by many of the current people in the news.

Anyway, I also believe there is something infinitely valuable in being able to grow up feeling safe and secure, as well as infinitely valuable in growing up seeing a vision of how things can be.  I think the opportunity to grow up hearing discussions of people trying to do the right thing and feeling hopeful is far more powerful than growing up surrounded by fear or anger.

Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not grow up totally immune to the bigotry and racism.  In a children's book, My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Grwoing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., written by his sister, Christine King Farris describes a healthy rich childhood filled with play and community in which the children really were shielded from the political and social climate.  She describes a particular event as the day Martin Luther and his siblings realized that all was not as it seemed.

She describes the day the King children were told by by their friends (their neighborhood friends whom they'd played with for years) that they could no longer play with them.  The friends were white and soon moved away.  Martin and his siblings were devastated, and what happened next is also something that I want my children to grow up knowing...

Martin Luther's mother did not yell and holler and speak of hatred.  Instead she spoke in words filled with hope and explained the behavior of the neighbors by saying that people did not yet understand.

They were powerful words and Martin took those words to heart, announcing to his mother that someday he was going to change the world.

And indeed he did.  And he did it by espousing peaceful practices, inspiring people from all walks of life to joing together and speaking relentlessly about the importance of civil rights.

I hope my children will grow up and help be a part of furthering his legacy.  And so, tomororow we bake cake and celebrate the birth of this great man.


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