MLK Day and Your Kids: A Good Time to Start a Conversation

Note: I wrote this blog post a couple of days ago. I wish had more time for these posts, but I do what I can with the time I have. Last night while we were eating dinner, H mentioned he didn’t have school today. We said that was right and asked him if he knew why. I was AMAZED at what he knew about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 6 year old way, he told us about segregation and how Dr. King fought against it. He told us he made a big speech and then stood up and bellowed “I have a dream!” He said “you know, he changed the world.” We continued talking and H said he wanted to see the “I have a dream” speech so we pulled it up on youtube after bath time. L was confused that the video was only in black and white and quickly lost interest and H kept asking when he was going to say “I have a dream!” I’m not sure how much they absorbed, but it made me happy they watched it. Plus, I got this really cute picture that makes me smile. Also, a thanks to Deitra Scott and Brandi Downey who read this before it was published! Ok, original blog post below.

I’m sure you know that today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Most kids don’t have school and the government is closed. (Oh wait, it has been for almost a month.) But did you know that MLK Day was established by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and that it was first observed in 1986? Stevie Wonder even wrote his Happy Birthday song and held a rally at the site of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, in support of the holiday’s legislation. I was shocked that this day wasn’t observed until the mid 80s! And did you know… ready for this… MLK Day wasn’t officially observed by all 50 states until 2000! 2000!!

In the past, I have treated MLK Day solely as a day off. I didn’t give much thought to WHY we celebrated MLK other than the little bit I knew from my history classes which was he lead the peaceful civil rights movement that included the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The Civil rights movement was taught to me in school as something that was completed so now we celebrate that victory by getting a day off work and honoring a man who played a great part in that movement. As I get older and have children of my own, I realize that is not the case. Should we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr and all he accomplished? Absolutely. But to treat this day simply as a day of celebration for a movement that has achieved it’s end goal is wrong. We should honor MLK Day by doing the work of the civil rights movement – to actually make progress to complete the mission. I think that work looks different for each of us as we are all in different stages of life. For me, parenting is what I am most focused on so my hope is that I can use this day as another jumping off point to talk to my children about race.

Let me stop here. I am a white woman with white children. I was hesitant to write anything about MLK Day because of that fact. I recognize that I am coming from a place of privilege and, most likely, ignorance. I have not endured injustice simply because of the color of my skin. I am not forced to have conversations with my children about how there are people who will not like them because of how they look, and to find the balance between providing enough information to prepare them, but not enough to make them angry or too hurt. When H turns 16 and gets his drivers license I will watch him drive off without thinking twice what might happen if he is pulled over. It’s easy to gloss over these issues for me and my family, but it doesn’t mean we should. I am learning more and more about my own prejudices and am seeking out how to begin conversations with my children about race. MLK Day is a great day to have one of those conversations or to start them if you haven’t already.

Granted, H is almost 7 and L is 4, so I want these conversations to be age-appropriate. I’ve found books are great tools to introduce kids to big ideas or concepts. Lucy has a board book, The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hudson has Dream March. We’ll read these books today and, if I know H, he will have questions that will lead the conversation. I might fumble through some of my answers and there will be times I will have to tell him “I don’t know, but I will find out.” I won’t get it perfect and sometimes we both might leave the conversation with more questions unanswered than answered, but none of this is an excuse not to talk to my children about race, discrimination and the part we play in that dynamic. Besides, if we both keep thinking about those unanswered questions, we may come up with solutions to some of them, and isn’t that a wonderful way to celebrate the work and life of Dr. King?

Having these conversations once a year is not nearly enough though. From what little I know, exposure to people who are different than you is key to combating prejudice. This is one reason I love Houston so much! We are the most diverse city in the country! What a wonderful opportunity for my kids to grow up with such diversity around them. They learn about various ethnicities and cultures through festivals, cuisine, museums, and performing arts if we just step out of our comfort zone and take them to experience these things! I hope they look back and understand what a gift it was to grow up in a multi-cultural city. If you are wanting to get out and about today, there are several MLK events around Houston. CultureMap has a good write-up of activities that are open to the public.

Do you talk to your children about race? How do you acknowledge MLK Day in your home?

take care!

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