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What To Tell Your Kids About MLK? The Truth

Why this often uncomfortable conversation about race is so important.

Credit: Tracy Patch
Credit: Tracy Patch

To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a couple years ago, my daughter’s first grade teacher invited all parents into the classroom to watch a video with the kids about Dr. King called “Our Friend, Martin.” The movie splices real footage of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement into the animated tale of a young African American boy who time travels back to the 60’s with his best friend, who is white.

Most of the children in that class enjoyed the movie, but my daughter (who is white) had a very emotional reaction. When Dr. King’s assassination was narrated, she began to cry uncontrollably. We had to leave the room.

I well remember my six-year old anxiously asking me questions in the hall outside of the classroom: “That wouldn’t happen now, right Mommy?” I don't remember verbatim how I responded, but I know I said what would work to make her feel better. ‘No, that would never happen now. Because of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., everyone is treated equally.’

If given a chance to time-travel back to that moment, I would not offer my daughter the same response. I might, instead, say that America has come a long way since the time of King’s murder (we have an African American president!) but there’s still a long way to go. I might tell her what our president said in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder -- that “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”

According to an article in Psychology Today, studies show “that children often come to their own (sometimes worrying) conclusions about race and if they think they can’t discuss them with us, then these theories do not get checked.” Although it may not be the most comfortable conversation to have, an honest and open one about racism is the best hope for our younger generations to overcome it.

How do you talk to your children about racism?  Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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