Talking With Your Child About MLK, Jr.


Most children know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was by the time they reach the 2nd grade. They’ve colored pictures of him, heard that he was a man who fought for equality and that he stressed peace during a difficult time in our country’s history. What if parents, teachers, and children themselves want more?  Author and mother Denene Millner wanted her kids to truly appreciate how one person’s voice could change the world. offers us suggestions for how to talk with your children about MLK, Jr. Are kids missing a crucial part of history?

What our kids know is this: Dr. King had a dream, and then he was shot by a bad guy and now black people can do the same things as white people without anyone getting mad about it or in trouble for it. We have a holiday in his honor and fete his work with sales at the mall. For these kids and most of their parents, the days of hoses and snapping dogs and burning crosses might as well have happened 150 years ago, rather than just 50.

“Dr. King is almost a fictional historical character to many young people,” says Tarana Burke, the former associate director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, AL, and the director of Just BE, Inc., a nonprofit that benefits teen girls. “They don’t get that they are (in many cases) one generation away from him and that they are directly affected by some of the gains he and others like him fought to achieve.”

This is a disservice to children — and not just because they’re missing out on the significance of a crucial piece of American history. Relegating it to dusty history books makes them miss out on how far our country has come; how much further it has to go; and, most importantly, how the passion, righteousness, ideals, and actions of even one person can change our entire world for the better.

Helping our children remember Dr. King’s legacy — and, as Burke points out, the critical role teens and young adults played in the Civil Rights Movement — also assists us parents in shining a light on what’s right and good about the centerpiece of his tenets: that we treat our fellow man equally, judge people “by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” and have enough decency and respect for ourselves to lift our voices and seek what we think is rightfully ours without resorting to violence to get it.

Denene Millner says that many parents struggle with this conversation. The questions his actions, and especially his death, elicit can be tricky to navigate, though. How, after all, do you explain to a child who is constantly told to follow the rules that Dr. King was right when he chose to break federal law and encouraged others to do the same? And what words can you draw upon to help young minds wrap themselves around the kind of hate it took to kill Dr. King, who simply wanted our country to treat all of its citizens equally?

For my daughters, she says, the truth has always been the best course, even when the telling was uncomfortable. My husband and I speak of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with reverence — and we’ve done so since they were preschoolers and able to worship everyone from Laurie Berkner to Stevie Wonder to The Wiggles. We focused on what a great man he was and the power of his voice and actions. Later, when they were able to notice skin color and ask why some of their friends were “pink” with “yellow” hair, our conversations became more frank when it came to MLK: “Because of him, you and your friends can go to the same school and the same playgrounds and have playdates together,” was the standard line when they were kindergartners, and when they were upper elementary school students, they were likely to hear, “Dr. King led boycotts and marched and got beaten up, thrown in jail, and ultimately killed because he wanted our country to do right by African Americans.” My girls know his quest for peace was met with a deadly hail of bullets.

And how does the next generation carry on his legacy? Turn talking into doing: National days of service, volunteerism, and continued real conversations. Inequalities in housing, education, job opportunities, and more still remain. In fact, a report released this fall showed that American schools are almost as segregated as they were 60 years ago. So our kids need to listen, learn, remember, truly understand and continue to live out his legacy.


To read this piece in its entirely, click HERE. Denene Millner is a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist.  She’s written over 25 books and her work has appeared in numerous national publications.



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