MLK Day With Kids: How to Start Talking About Race

Josie Ortega shares three good ways to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a family: think of it as a day for history, a day of service, and a day to start talking about race and racism.

National Holiday For Dr. King

Across the United States, schools and many businesses are closed on the third Monday in January for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

So soon after Christmas break and a few January snow days, it may feel like we’ve had plenty of days off . . . so what should we do with our families on MLK Day?

Instead, it’s a day of remembrance, when we acknowledge that the promise in our Declaration of Independence to consider “all men [as] created equal” was far from reality. We remember Dr. King’s work and sacrifice during the Civil Rights Movement, and we’re inspired to wonder how we can work toward more fully embodying the American dream through our own sacrifice on behalf of others.

For both adults and kids, it’s an invitation to history and service and a good chance to have some deeper talk about bias and racism.

Talking About Race and American History

We live just outside Washington, DC, and a recent family outing to the National Mall reminded me again that having young children demands constant practice in boiling things down to their most essential elements. Kids ask for explanations of issues that I haven’t pondered for years (maybe ever?), and they’re so very straightforward.

So, how do we talk with young kids about race, racism, and history? We can’t change history, but we do have a role in how we discuss the past, celebrate it, lament it, learn from it. Remembering all the while that historical figures were people like us, with both virtues and flaws.

Let me walk you through this imperfect little case study.

From Founding Fathers to Civil War

We spot the towering Washington Monument: George Washington, first president, got it.

My kids have varying levels of understanding about the Revolutionary War and how the American colonists fought for their right to self-determination. (Confession: whatever grasp they have is largely thanks to Hamilton  and King George’s excellent song “You’ll Be Back.”)

There’s a sad part of our country’s history when white people kept black people as slaves. They were treated as property, not paid for their work, not considered fully human. That was wrong.

Learning about history can be rough!

After that, we strolled beside the Reflecting Pool, then passed the Washington Monument and arrived at the African American History Museum. (No line! I recommend going in the morning.)

African-American History

Naturally, our kids were ready to hear. What’s this museum? What’s it all about? (And adults, too, might wonder: Why the need for a particular museum for black history?)

Remember President Lincoln and how our country had slavery, and the Civil War ended slavery? That’s the first reason for the museum: it’s important to remember that story and those people.
Second reason: Since America started, black people made discoveries, fought in the military, invented things, and made contributions, and they often went unrecognized. So the museum is a place to go back and recognize those unsung heroes who were ignored for many years. Remember Katherine in Hidden Figures?

And, friends, you know that we weren’t going to get through this outing without the three-year-old looking at pictures and at other tourists, and loudly asking, “Is she black??” multiple times. Then even more embarrassing, “Mama, she doesn’t like white people??”

You know what? I’m cringing and embarrassed, but that’s probably a good sign. Let’s talk about it. Black parents have to talk about it all the time.

For many years even after slavery ended, many white people continued treating black people badly, and passed laws that prevented them from voting, and kept them at different schools. That’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. came in. He taught people to fight for equality without using weapons or violence.

As you can imagine, this family field trip wasn’t perfect, and we didn’t cover all the bases. But it was something! (By the way, you shouldn’t even try to cover all the bases and close a conversation. History isn’t something to master; it’s a jumping-off point.)

Learning About MLK

Now here we are on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, with a chance to re-visit Dr. King’s life — or learn about it for the first time.

Reading for the grown-ups:

And I understand that the kids may not be ready for a formal history lesson. Maybe they’ll be up for giving one of these songs a listen:

A Day of Service

Many Americans use MLK Day as a day of service, and there are tons of volunteer projects to choose from.

It doesn’t need to be elaborate or formal. Kids might love to donate the winter coats they’ve outgrown, or head to the local park to clean up trash.

Volunteering as a family together may be the joyful bonding experience you never expected! Or, let’s be honest, it may prove challenging. Either way, you’re planting seeds for a life of service, and conveying that even the smallest among us have something to contribute.

Dr. King famously said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

Talking About Race: Just Do It

For a white person like me, it can be tempting to gloss over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Black History Month in February. The political climate and national discussion on race feel fraught and dangerous. Talking about discrimination and inequality is uncomfortable.

What right or knowledge do I have to talk about race? As with any conflict situation, my first reaction is avoidance. But that’s not the right reaction.

Here’s my encouragement: rather than ignoring, let’s try to engage at whatever level we’re able to at the moment.

I’ll be honest: at times, my contribution to racial reconciliation has been limited to mustering the energy to check out Molly By Golly from the library for my kids and asking my husband to play Sam Cooke at dinner. I’m in survival mode, and that’s all I got.

But, good news: we don’t have to get all the way to policy prescriptions or perfect solutions. In fact, I’d argue perhaps we should act locally first—like, at our own dinner tables.

A first step is to think about our personal history with race and to look at our country’s history. Each of us will draw different conclusions about how these might apply to our thinking today.

Talking About Race And Affirming Differences

One of my biggest shifts in thinking happened when my black coworker at Little Lights Urban Ministries shared that he felt hurt when his high school friends ignored his black identity. Instead of acting “color-blind” or “post-racial”—as I felt trained to do—we can see color and acknowledge differences.

This applies when we’re talking with our kids about race, too. I’m trying to take my cues from the way another black co-worker expressed it to her granddaughter:

Look at your light brown skin . . . how beautiful that God made you that way! And look at my dark brown skin . . . I love it! And look at her light skin . . . it’s beautiful!

As with most other areas, the best thing we parents can do for our kids is to model healthy living and begin by working through our own racial issues.

If you’re looking for a place to start, Laura Tremaine’s podcast “Smartest Person in the Room: Bias series” provides an easy entry point into the conversation about race in America, with a white and black friend talking openly about it together.

And if you know your kids could use more diverse representation in their books and toys, start by ordering Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Classic. Just do it.

Talking and learning about race is an ongoing process that can’t be restricted to one holiday, or one month. But MLK Day offers a start and a yearly chance to reassess how we and our families are learning, growing, and serving others.

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