Explaining MLK Day to a Preschooler

Yesterday while we were running errands, Napoleona asked me, for the bazillionth time, “Is tomorrow the weekend?” (For some reason the kids both ask me about this all the time. SillyBilly recently bought a new saw and multi-tool with a Home Depot gift card he received for Christmas; he only gets to use these tools with Anthropapa on the weekends. Napoleona just likes to know what’s going on.)

I said that no, it was a holiday, so daycare was closed and Anthropapa might stay home. Then she asked me what holiday it would be.

Diving into deep waters, I explained that sometimes we have holidays to remember important people, like Christmas for Jesus, or Thanksgiving for the Puritans. This holiday was for a man who not too long ago was a preacher, a minister who made speeches about being nice to other people.

Taking a deep breath as I could sense that she still wasn’t clear on this, I explained that this man lived right before Mama and Papa were born, and back then sometimes white people weren’t nice to black people just because of the color of their skin. Some people thought that one skin color made the person better, and another worse. Since that’s not right, this man, who was black, made big speeches about how that was wrong, and that we should all be nice to each other no matter what.

Then I reminded her of our trip to Washington, DC, where we walked from the Washington Monument, all the long way down by the big pool, to the big steps of the Lincoln Monument. I told Napoleona that this man had stood on those big steps and made the biggest speech of all, and the whole space around that pool, all the way back, was filled with people listening to him.

Part of me hated to even bring to her consciousness the idea of judging someone by the color of their skin. But I thought I should try to very simply tell her what the day was all about. How did I do?

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11 Comments

Filed under Deep Thoughts, Kid Talk, Parenting

11 responses to “Explaining MLK Day to a Preschooler

  1. I think you did really well! And it’s the start of a long chain of explanations, each of one of which will be a little closer to the truth, of something that we can never fully explain even to ourselves as adults – why human beings treat each other so cruelly and immorally in so many ways…

  2. I agree it is sad to even introduce judging people by the color of their skin to a child. But a racial education will happen one way or another through commercials, friends, school teachers, or some other way. Your introduction sounds like the right one to me. I’ll try the same next year or the one after.

  3. What you did was right. I remember when I lived in Bahrain as a kid. I must have been around age 4 or younger, and I kept pointing to black people in the street and saying: “Mummy, there’s a blackie.” After I did this to a particular man (who was too far away hear – thank goodness!), my mum said to me: “And he calls you a whitie.” I was confused, so she said: “Some people say bad things about black people and treat them badly.” I remember feeling so terrible at this, then she added: “But we’re not like that, we don’t behave that way,” and I was so relieved. I will never forget that conversation, and would go back to it as a kid and think: “That’s the way we are”. It defined my attitudes. It’s so important to talk about racism even to very young children.

  4. Sarah

    Someone once told me that only white parents have the option of not talking to their children about racism. That really struck home with me! My 5 year old son really loves the book “My Brother Martin”, written by his older sister about their childhood and a little about when they were grown.

  5. URD: I’m just waiting for the “why are there wars?” and “why do the police have guns?” questions. More stuff that I can’t really explain very well.

    GreenDaddy: Unfortunately, racism exists, and so I think when confronted with it, we need to talk about it somehow. I just hope that the strongest influence on them is how their parents act.

    Helen: Your story is powerful evidence that parents are the most important influence after all! I’m also glad that we live in a very racially mixed town, with a large Haitian and Ecuadorean population. The majority of my life I have lived in predominantly white towns, and I don’t want my kids growing up thinking that’s the way the world is.

    Sarah: It’s hard for me to believe that racism is as prevalent as people say it is, simply because I am lucky enough to be white and so do not experience it first hand. My husband said something powerful to me the other day: unless we (meaning he and I) acknowledge that our relative material wealth, good education, and other advantages in life were obtained at the expense of others, we are contributing to a form of racism. I’m still mulling that one over.

  6. I get these questions all the time! I know in my head that it’s too much “of the world” to give them bold answers, but I just can’t stop myself sometimes. Plus, I have found that the questions that I don’t answer linger on, but those which receive even a simple, but “real” answer, just disappear. (Real vs fairies and gnomes…)

    I tho’t your answer was wonderful!

  7. What a poignant post. I remember that day when my son learned about Martin Luther King, and why he was killed. He learned at school, and he came home to ask me about it…(I would have liked to have had some advance warning that that was coming!) I hated breaking his innocence.
    I think you did a very, thoughtful, beautiful job.

  8. Goodwitch: Thanks 🙂 My kids are pretty single-minded if you don’t explain things to them, too!

    SusieJ: Thank you. As my kids get closer to school age, I wonder what conversations will be inspired by what they hear in school.

  9. nana

    You need a great job explaining MLK day. I am so proud of you!

    I vividly remember a day when you were about 2. Your Dad & I took you to one of the malls for some shopping and you saw a younger child in a stroller. You were really happy to see another small folk like you in a crowd of much taller adults. You ran up and kissed the child. I don’t recall if it was a boy or a girl. I do remember the child was black. I also remember the tears in my eyes and the lump in my throat at your awesome, spontaneous expression of joy and tenderness.

    Children are born without prejudice. By setting an emphatic offsetting example, parents prepare them for the onslaught of intolerance and stereotyping which the world will surely provide.

    You and Anthropapa are doing good!

  10. nana

    mea culpa typo: You DID a great job…

  11. Nana: what a sweet story. I’ve got a few tears now as well. I’m glad that we lived somewhere that was diverse when I was little. And I’ve realized something funny: it’s often much easier to explain things to little kids, because you do have to just keep things simple. That’s all they need.

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