Play: Learning about Martin Luther King Jr.
King Jr. Day is right around the corner, and it’s so much more than just a day
off school. Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to talk about this with
your children! Here’s what I’ve done to get my children ready to celebrate MLK
Read, read, read!
There are tons of great resources out there for teaching children about the
Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King.
When my boys were little I read them a short board book called The Story of Martin
Luther King Jr., by Johnny Ray Moore. This story is intended for young children
and gets across the main message – Dr. King had a dream that people would not
be treated a certain way based on the color of their skin, and he helped to
make his dream come true.
Last year I read my children a book called Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree
King Mitchell (she also wrote a great book called Granddaddy’s Gift). While not about Martin Luther King Jr., it
is an engaging story that has enough examples of segregation and discrimination
to spark a good conversation with your child.
This year I read my boys, aged 4 and 6, three books by David Adler. I began with A Picture Book of Frederick Douglas. This was
really the first time I had talked with the boys about slavery. I’ll admit it
was a difficult thing to bring up (and I skipped a few of the more graphic sentences), but I wanted to be the first one to discuss
it with them, and I felt it was important background for them to have when
learning about the Civil Rights Movement.
Next I read A Picture Book of Rosa Parks. I started off by telling the kids
that Rosa Parks was famous for sitting on a bus, and that they had better listen
hard to find out why. I skimmed through some of the beginning just to make sure
they didn’t lose interest. One good conversation we were able to have after
reading this book is that not all laws are fair. The kids are still
the age where they see everything as being right/wrong, so it was a little
different for them to think about a law, or a policeman, being wrong.
Find a way to bring it to life!
After this we played some games together. I wanted to do something to help the
boys connect personally with the unfairness of discrimination, so I set up a
way to do this. We got out Connect Four and immediately the kids started
arguing over who was going to be what color pieces. Well, I cut them off by
launching into a talk about how much I loved 4 year olds. “Four year olds
are smart, and wonderful, and handsome, and really good at games and winning.
Six year olds are kind of boring. They are really not that great. I just don’t
think they are as good as four year olds.” I was about half way through my
little speech when my older son started interrupting me – “I know what
you’re doing Mommy! I know what you’re doing! I’m like the black person in the
book.” I continued with my instructions that the wonderful four year old
would get to choose his color, and he would get to go first, and he would only
need to connect three in a row to win. So, of course he won in about 4 turns!
We then followed up with a discussion about whether or not that was a fair way
to play the game. Of course we concluded that since God had decided when they
would be born and God loved them both the same amount, it was not right that I
would say one was better than the other and give them different rules, and
because of that the game was not fair. (And yes, I did clarify afterwards that my statements had been to make a point and did not reflect my true feelings – hopefully the boys won’t end up in therapy because of my little lesson!)
I will spare you the details of my next experiment, but suffice it to say that
if you have a running race where your “wonderful six year old” gets a
head start while your “not so great four year old” does not, it’s
entirely possible and indeed quite likely that your four year old will miss the
point of what you are doing and just cry… A lot.
We followed up our games by reading A Picture Book of Martin Luther King Jr. I
wanted to do the games first so that the boys would have a better understanding
of why Dr. King and many others were fighting against segregation and other
unfair laws. I emphasized that Dr. King loved God very much, and that he wanted
to obey the Bible by standing for what was right without being violent. It is
my hope that the things we have read and talked about will be remembered by the
boys, and that they will be challenged to appreciate people for who they are
and not judge them because of what they look like.
On a side note, if you are interested in teaching your kids about race, I would
highly recommend the book Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman , and
the chapter, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”. The authors
point out that while parents may think that surrounding their children with a
diverse group of people will be enough to ensure that they are accepting of
others, this is not, in fact, the case. Neither does failing to mention race
because of a belief that children are “color blind”, assuming that if
we just don’t talk about it then they won’t notice it. The author’s research
“kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to
form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food
to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their
cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to
categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which
is the most clearly visible…The spontaneous tendency to assume your group
shares characteristics–such as niceness, or smarts–is called essentialism.
Kids never think groups are random.”
If you want your kids to know that skin color does not determine how nice, or
how smart, or how fun another person is, then you have to specifically say
that. Yes, it’s a little awkward, but it’s one way that my parenting changed
after reading this well-researched book.
If you are interested in how stereotypes affect your life as an adult (and they
do affect everyone – it’s part of how our brains work!), then I would highly
recommend the book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M Steele. It’s a research based book that talks about race, gender, and many other relevant topics.
Well, to the three or four of you who are still reading, forgive me for this lengthy blog entry and my
little trip off the beaten path… I do hope you and your kids will find a
meaningful way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and to embrace the great
diversity with which God has created the world.