Talking to Kids About Martin Luther King, Jr.

The great thing about a holiday is not just the fact that many people get the day off, but it also carves a memorial into the annual calendar that commemorates something or someone that we as a society deem important. When children see that they have a day off of school and that people are celebrating something, many of them naturally ask, “why?”

That is why holidays are brilliant. They ensure that certain topics and values will be passed down through the generations. Even if the adults forget to cover a certain topic in raising children, the holiday topics will almost always come up (year after year) and the children will learn about them.

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we are reminded of the great values of love, respect, diversity, overcoming the impossible, justice, faith, courage, community, and all sorts of other positive teachable topics. What comes with his story is also the harsh truth of sin and darkness in the world – topics such as hate, racism, injustice, murder, terrorism, and the like.

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC.
Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

We told our daughter (who is five now) that there was no school on Monday because it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That sparked her curiosity about the subject. She had already learned a little about him in school recently, but she wanted to know more when we were talking about it in the car.

Here are some of the things she asked (progressively as I was answering each question:

“What did he do?”

“Is he still alive?”

“How did he die?”

“Why did someone kill him?”

“Where was he when he died?”

As you can see, she was very curious about his life and the circumstances of his death. I chose not to sugarcoat anything and answer her in a very honest matter-of-fact way. She may be five, but I have learned that even young children are ready to hear about the harsh realities of this sinful world in which we live. Of course I’m not graphic in describing how he died, but I tried to be straightforward about it – and she was able to understand and handle it well.

Before I show you how I answered, I wanted to jot down a few ideas on what I feel are helpful things to keep in mind when speaking to young children about tough, dark subjects. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m just sharing what appeared to work with our daughter…..

  1. Be honest – the worst thing we can do to our children is lie to them and make them think there is nothing bad or evil in the world. They will wake up to that reality someday and it is best if they hear it first from their parents.
  2. Be straightforward – I don’t see any value in beating around the bush or creating a fog of confusion in her mind by using ambiguous generalizations such as “we need to be nice to other people.” It’s better to be specific and use MLK Day (and every other day) to combat racism in its face and talk with children as early as possible about treating everyone with love and respect no matter their skin color.
  3. Be God-focused – we believe in God. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, he was known for saying that the arc of the universe curves towards justice. And that curve is because of the hand of God. Full justice and love may not be evident at this moment, but God’s finger is pointing in that direction. We shall follow, and he shall lead.

Here is the gist of the answers I gave:

“What did he do?” A lot of people are mean to other people just because of the color of their skin. He challenged those ideas and gave a speech about a dream he had. He had a dream that little girls of different skin colors would hold hands and play together in the playground. And guess what? That dream came true (I said that not to say that all is well, but to point to the example that she knows, which is the fact that she does play with and hold hands with children of different skin colors). Now there are no more laws that black people need to use different water fountains or bathrooms than white people. (We will continue to explain to her that not all things are completely better between people of different skin colors and there is still a lot of work to do to make sure there is equality and community amongst our diversity in this nation).

“Is he still alive?” No. 

“How did he die?” Somebody shot him with a gun and killed him.

“Why did someone kill him?” The man hated him and did not like what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught and wanted to keep doing things that were very bad for black people.

“Where was he when he died?” I think he was on a balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

I added, “We believe that God made all people – and that he made all different colors of skin. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor who believed in God and that God was going to bring justice to this earth over the course of history.”

Let us press on in every fight against injustice and trust in the grace of God as we follow Him on the journey towards justice.

1024px-March_on_Washington_edit

Published by

Jesse

Jesse Joyner travels nationwide performing a comedy juggling act for family and kids events. He is also working towards his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). He enjoys playing the piano, bird watching, and old houses. He lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Kezzie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In order to keep out the robots, please type in the numbers as all digits to prove you are a human :) * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.