The celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and his legacy of social justice and civil rights work, may only officially occur on January 17th this year, but discussions around diversity and racial justice need to be front and center every day.
As we all collectively work to re-learn how to talk about racial justice, let’s use this MLK Jr. Day to think about how we talk about the life and legacy of this incredible leader, and the work left to be done in our country.
While your child’s school will likely be talking about MLK Jr., it is always best to start conversations in your home first. Your child learns what YOU value from hearing these conversations around the dinner table or at bedtime. This may mean you need to be in touch with your own feelings before embarking on this journey with your child.
If you’re unsure of how to start, use books. Check out www.consciouskid.org for some recommendations. Reading together can help introduce vocabulary, new concepts and historical events in an age-appropriate way.
Tips by Age
Toddlers : For your toddlers, make your discussions be about the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. Talk about courage, kindness and understanding diversity. You don’t need to shield your toddler from basic facts around racism, the civil rights movement and MLK Jr.’s death, but you also don’t need to fixate on the trauma. Keep explanations brief and remember to take a pause for questions.
Elementary: For elementary school kids, expand previous discussions around MLK Jr.’s life to hone in on what it means to be an advocate for others and for yourself. Talk about how they can stand up for justice and inequality when they see it – like making sure everyone gets a turn on the playground or helping younger kids when they struggle. Ask them for examples of where and how they can be an upstander.
Tweens and teens: Ask your tween or teen to teach you about MLK Jr. and the significance of his work and life. Read MLK Jr. speeches aloud and pick quotes that resonate for them. Then, ask them about their own experience with racism. Talk openly about current events, how they relate to the ongoing fight for justice and equality, and brainstorm ways your child can be active in making change. Make a list as a family about the ways you can do more to support a cause (it doesn’t have to be related to civil rights), and get involved.
Outside of MLK day, we need to begin by acknowledging diversity every day. We can’t assume children don’t see race when the science tells us otherwise. Research has demonstrated that even infants can distinguish people based on similarities and differences, and that babies as young as 5 months old may display preferences around race. By 30 months, children may use race in their decisions around playmates, and by 4-5 years old, children may display expressions of racial prejudice. We cannot wait for our children to be old enough to ask to begin these conversations. Overcoming inherent prejudice takes work and needs to start early and with YOU.
Bring it Up. Talk about differences – in your own history, in books, among peers, within cultures, between religions, and amongst races. Use books, movies, and real-life experiences as openings to some of the hard conversations. Don’t lean into silence, and be prepared to hear and answer some awkward questions.
Name it. A client recently asked me what to do when her toddler pointed to someone with brown skin and said that this person was someone familiar to her who also had brown skin. The mom was worried that her daughter would sound racist and whispered to her not to say anything. This story may sound silly and minor, but it happens all the time. White adults who want to teach their young children tolerance and anti-racism get stuck at the mere observation of skin color. This was a wonderful opportunity to show a child that there is nothing to whisper about or feel confused about, rather it was an opportunity to say “you noticed Lucy has skin color that reminds you of the person you are seeing.” That’s all. We need to pay close attention to our body language, voice and nervous system, particularly White parents, when we notice our children simply noticing the world around them. We have a choice, we can name it and help them appreciate the range of colors of our collective skin tones, or we can give the unspoken message that these are not appropriate conversations, leaving children to make up their own stories.
Appreciate Difference. There are lots of ways to appreciate differences in our day to day lives. Talk about your own family history, your language, religion, etc. and how it differs from others. Tell your child what you love about other cultures, traditions, foods, etc. and how wonderful it is to be able to learn and enjoy the diversity of others. Talk about how boring the world would be with people who were all the same and had the same experiences!
Expose. Make sure your social circle, and that of your child’s, represents the diversity of our country and world. Be intentional about your child’s exposure to friends who have varied experiences and backgrounds.
Be Honest. Talk openly about struggles that still exist, whether or not they impact your family. Income disparities, housing challenges, unequal pay, police violence, discrimination, and hate crimes are all just some of the topics that create an opportunity for your child to see that our work is not done. Empower your child to think critically, and use their voice to bring about the change they’d like to see.