Mary Tyler Son and I were hanging out over the weekend when we both realized that school would be closed on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was curious what that meant to my white, privileged six year old kiddo, so we talked about it right there on the kitchen floor where we had been chatting.
“Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?” I asked him. “A leader of the American civil rights movement.” Whoa. And wow. “Okay, yes, well, so, what exactly is the American Civil Rights Movement?” “I don’t know,” my kiddo responded, happy and chipper. That’s fair coming from a six year old and gave me a great place to focus the rest of our discussion. But I still wanted to know more about what Mary Tyler Son knew.
“Do you know what Martin Luther King, Jr. did that we honor him in January?” “He ended segregation.” “Can you explain segregation to me?” “Segregation is the separation of black and white people.” “Yes, that’s right. Why is it wrong for people to be segregated?” “Segregation is mean.”
When you talk with your kiddos, they give you so much information. In many ways, my boy knew more than I realized about Dr. King and civil rights, but much of it was superficial and lacked context. He was repeating historical facts, but minus the human cost and factor of those facts on black America, and, yes, on white America, too. We were both also ignoring the reality that America is not nearly so black and white in 2015 as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
It can be overwhelming as a middle class white person of privilege to know how and when to tackle discussions like the American civil rights movement with young children, especially when so much of what the media presents is characterizing civil rights as something historical, in the past, as if the movement’s goals have been reached.
So what can parents do to breathe a little life, empathy, and context into something like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?
I took my lead from my son who loves to consult technology for his information. “Let’s use Brain Pop!” For those of you who don’t know, Brain Pop and Brain Pop, Jr. are fantastic, super terrific apps available for your phone or tablet. They each feature a robot named Moby who chats with a human, either Tim in Brain Pop or Annie in Brain Pop, Jr. The junior edition is geared towards kids in grades K-3, but my kindergartener likes both apps and the content of the regular app is not too advanced to be prohibitive for him.
Each of the apps is now featuring a “movie of the day” about MLK, Jr. that are both actually really well done. The movies use animation to explain the basics of Martin Luther King Jr.’s history, mission, goals, obstacles, and accomplishments. They are short, under five minutes, and don’t go into any detail, but they do address his assassination and the pain that segregation caused America. They are a great starting place for you and your kids to start a discussion.
I encourage you to chat with your child’s teacher, as well, to get a sense of what type of curriculum the school is providing to educate about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. It was clear that Mary Tyler Son knew the basics and was able to recite facts, but didn’t have a deeper understanding to complement those facts. That’s our job as parents to provide those things.
Another suggestion I made, which Mary Tyler Son was all in favor of, was to watch Dr. King’s speech from the March on Washington in 1963, most commonly referred to as his, “I have a dream” speech. I am ashamed to say that I had never actually sat and watched it before. I have fond memories of meeting my sister at a truck stop near our home in 1983 as she traveled cross country as part of a rally to commemorate the speech in DC, but, no, I had never actually watched the speech in total. If you haven’t watched it, you should.
Now my six year old got fidgety in parts of it, but for much of it he was paying attention and listening. 1963 marked 100 years since America’s Civil War, which right there adds a tremendous amount of depth to Dr. King’s words, but here we are, over 50 years past 1963, still taking the “tranquilizing drugs of gradualization.” Things like police brutality, poverty, marginalization, educational disparity, voting rights, and institutionalization are as much a part of the black experience in America as they were 52 years ago. That’s a lot for a six year old to absorb. That’s a lot for a 45 year old to absorb, too. But we have to try.
Another way to honor Dr. King and his legacy is to participate in the National Day of Service that coincides with MLK Day. There are cities and organizations across America that sponsor volunteer opportunities for families and individuals to give back to honor Dr. King and remember his peaceful, non-violent methods. Simply Google “National Day of Service” to find opportunities near your home.
Most importantly, talk with your kids. Start the conversation. Show enthusiasm and curiosity and interest and respect. If you don’t know enough on your own, learn with your kiddo. Sit side by side at the computer or tablet or library and learn together. It’s hard to think of a greater way to honor such a great man.