I tried to talk to the kids a little bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. I hesitated to do it because they're so young to be told about things like assassination and political violence. But they are old enough to have a basic grasp of right and wrong, so I gave it a go.

Me: You remember what I told you earlier this morning about today?
Daniel: What.
Me: Today is a holiday, so there's no school and no mail. Do you remember why?
Daniel: Because we're celebrating the birthday of someone who lived a long time ago.
Me: Well, not THAT long ago, about 50 years ago. But do you remember why we celebrate his birthday?
Daniel: Because he worked really hard to...I don't really remember.
Me: You're right. He worked really hard to bring equal rights for everyone. It used to be that only people who look like us with pale skin were allowed to vote and go to certain schools. And it wasn't fair, so this man, Martin Luther King Jr., worked really hard to make things fair. He went to jail for it.
Daniel: He went to JAIL?
Me: Yes, but he wasn't doing bad things. He was trying to make life more fair for everyone.

Then I told him that MLK was shot and killed for what he did, even though he himself never used guns or knives to prove his point. I said that he would get lots of people together to march in the streets and sing about freedom and equality. It was about this time that Daniel lost interest in the conversation and made some random, totally irrelevant observation about the kitchen light. (Anya didn't really pay attention to any of the conversation; I think it's too abstract for her at this age.) That's as far as I went, and for a kid who's not quite five years old, I was surprised he paid attention for that long.

This is a difficult topic, one that I don't know how to address very well at all. I think it's important for my children to understand some things. For instance: they come from a position of distinct privilege (white, middle-class, parents with a whole lot of higher education - you might say excess in my case). They need to be aware of racism and inequalities and unfairness. I do think it's important to learn about these things from their parents, lest they grow up to believe that we are oblivious to these social problems. Or worse, that we think racism ended with the election of Barack Obama.

Can you tell I'm uncomfortable with this topic? I'm afraid if I try to say anything meaningful, it will come out as trite and patronizing, if not downright insulting.

I need some help here, though. As my children grow older, I feel like I need to have more conversations with them about racism and inequalities and unfairness in our society and culture, and I don't know how to do this adequately. Just to say "It's wrong" isn't nearly good enough. So, readers, I turn to you. What do you tell your children? How do you address these topics?


Becca said…
This morning CJ asked why he didn't have school. I told him today was Martin Luther King Day, in honor of a man who worked really hard to make sure everyone was treated equally. He said "Oh. Do we get presents from him?"


I told him no, that some people choose today to do public service or something good for their community. I admit, I left the comnversation there, pretty much. It was breakfast time, I hadn't had coffee, and he's 6.

So far, we haven't done a whole lot to address particulars in terms of equality. We've talked with him about those who are less fortunate in terms he understands--food, clothing, shelter, and toys. He knows that we donate clothing, toys, and usable goods to Goodwill so that people who need these things can find them.

We've talked to him about compassion, consideration, and respect--treating others as he would like to be treated, thinking about his actions and how they can be perceived, and respecting boundaries and objects by asking him how he would feel if someone took something of his or yelled at him.

For the most part, we are still of a mind where we teach by example. He's getting closer to some of the conversations but we tend to keep it simple and build upon the previous stuff rather than try to cover everything at once. I don't know how that works for Daniel though--the only thing about which I am certain in this matter is that the approach is different for every child based on what he/she understands and connects within that moment.
Steph said…
This is a good website to explore:

It used to be called "Anti-Racist Parent," and I know it's a popular site in the transracial adoption world. (At least among transracial adoptive parents who have a clue; alas, some don't.) Good resources for white parents of white children as well, if I remember correctly--haven't looked at it for a while.
Claire said…
Try teaching this kind of stuff to a class full of kids who are African American? And to boot, their parents who were already breathing down my back and calling me "White Girl" to the principal (they didn't like me because I didn't give their kids enough homework........).

It's a tough subject! I didn't even try with my kids today. I will say, though, that your kids know a lot more about MLK than the 6th graders that I was subbing for a few years ago in Middleton. It was so frightening at how IGNORANT they were!!!
katie said…
I think I started off with the lesson of why diversity is better than uniformity. For example, what if all the cars in the world were blue? All the flowers red? All the people were the same color, same size, had the same interest. They understood how boring this would make the world, and that diversity makes our life richer. This year, for MLK day, I bought them Obama's book, Of Thee I Sing, which is a letter to his daughters, and the overall message is that our country is made up of all kinds of people, and that's the best way to be.

In the earliest years, MLK day was a time to talk about this and about peace and justice generally. It wasn't until much later that I told them about the violence and racism and injustices. When I did, I told them, for example, that only white kids could go to school, and waited for a response. It came, "That's not fair!" and went from there. . .

There's so much more to bring up, but with kids I think it's important not to overwhelm them (so that they lose interest), but to take small steps towards understanding such big issues.

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