Every year on the third Monday of January, the United States honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Schools shut down for the day, many businesses close, and as a nation we take time to reflect on the life of Dr. King.

To make sure that January 18, 2021 doesn’t turn into just an extended weekend and it becomes a valuable learning opportunity for your children, use these tips to honor Dr. King’s legacy and help build the future he dreamed of.

1. Read a Book

There are many children’s books written about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. you can read together as a family including board books for the youngest readers and chapter books for grade school children, tweens, and teens. These books will give you a jumping off point for discussion around Dr. King’s life, from childhood through his adult life as a minister and Civil Rights activist. 

Two of our favorites about Dr. King’s life include Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.? and I am Martin Luther King Jr. There are also other wonderful books that discuss race, equality, and Civil Rights that children will learn from and enjoy. Check out Mixed, Skin Like Mine, and If You Were a Kid During the Civil Rights Movement.

2. Discuss Race

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day with your family should be centered around learning from the past, understanding our present, and tackling the injustice that still exists today.

Babies as young as six months old can recognize differences in skin and hair color and young toddlers may begin to point out differences they notice. Therefore addressing race through conversation and exposing children to diversity in social settings and in the media they consume helps children learn that our differences are valuable. 

If you haven’t started the conversation around race with your children, use MLK Day as an opportunity to talk about racial differences using toys or characters on TV. Normalize the conversation so you can build on this later on.

3. Learn the history of Civil Rights

There will be terms in the books you read together that children will have questions about - slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and Civil Rights to name a few. To break down these topics for children, use simple language that may not capture the detail of these complicated issues, but does get to the point of fair and unfair which children understand.

For example:

Slavery is when people are forced to work without being paid which is not right. People from Africa, who had black and brown skin, were taken from their homes and enslaved by people with white skin.

Jim Crow Laws were unfair rules that made it so only people with white skin could do certain things. After slavery ended, people with black and brown skin had to be paid for their work, but they were still not treated equally.

Civil Rights means that all people no matter what their skin color should be able to do the same things and be treated fairly. That is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about to lots of people to help them learn that Civil Rights were important.

4. Take Action

As we well know, Dr. King’s work continues to this day. There are endless cases of racism, racial injustice, and racial violence in our country and it’s imperative to our children’s future that we do better.

On MLK Day and beyond, talk to your children about how while laws were passed (thanks to Dr. King and his movement) to end school segregation, people are still not treated equally. This is a difficult conversation to have because children will inevitably wonder “Why?” and despite the history lessons there are no good answers.

What you can do though is ask your child how they want to take action like Dr. King did when he saw something that was wrong. Perhaps they want to save money to donate to a cause that is important to them, write a letter to their elected officials, or create artwork that conveys a message of justice and equality. There are many ways to make a difference in the world, and Dr. King can inspire your children to make theirs.

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