3 1/2 Ways to Teach My Toddlers About MLK, Jr.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, and after a conversation I had with some narrow minds over the holidays, I’m choosing to think of lessons from MLK’s life in three segments:

  1. Have empathy for people who feel down-trodden
  2. Don’t condemn an entire population for the actions of a few.
  3. Racial issues are more about socio-economics than skin color.

I’m imagining discussing this with my 3-year-old:


Son, if I were a perfect (or just better) daddy, I’d address all your tears with “I understand you’re frustrated that your brother stole your train. But you can’t body-slam him onto the floor.” I admit I often roll my eyes and give YOU time-outs for your “brutality”. But the fact is, your little brother stole your train! He’s the aggressor.

And you know how I’m always telling you to take your shoes off, and wash your hands? I tell friends you’re a demanding emperor. But really I’m the tyrant barking orders at you all day long. And sometimes you say, “No, Daddy! You’re not going to tell me to share my trains!”

And when you tell me not to watch you as you’re hiding behind the couch to intentionally poop your pants, isn’t that frustrating? Doesn’t it make you angry to have anyone look at you suspiciously? Like you’ve done something wrong? (Pooping isn’t wrong, son.)

See? It’s frustrating to feel constantly harassed or have your stuff taken. And imagine having people stare at you suspiciously all day long. That would be sad.

You’re allowed to be frustrated. You deserve to speak out.

When you see people of all skin colors protesting in the streets, it’s because they’re frustrated that someone took their things or looks at them suspiciously or treats them unfairly.

I hope you might ask why they’re marching. Their feelings are important. Just like yours are.

(You still can’t tackle your brother or avoid washing your hands. In New York you wash your hands before going to the bathroom.)


“Son, sometimes you say “I don’t like kids at school!” And why is that?”

He responds: “That’s why(*) that boy pushes me and always takes Percy**.”

“But that’s just the actions of one little boy. It’s not the actions of everyone. See? You can’t blame everyone for the actions of one. Like, buddy, when you say ‘I don’t like green food’ but it’s really that you don’t like peas, right?”

“No! I don’t want peas for lunch!” he says.

“Right. But you can’t stigmatize*** an entire group because of one thing. It goes for vegetables and people. Do you understand?”


“What do you think?”
“Um. I don’t know.”

“Ok. Well, we will not lump things together in this house. You don’t say ‘those people’, you don’t say, ‘I don’t like greens’ and you don’t…”

“Daddy?” he interrupts. “Can I watch Frozen?”

* My son says “that’s why” in place of “because”. I hope he never changes.

**   Percy = Friend of Thomas.

*** You don’t know what stigmatize means? What are they TEACHING you at that preschool?


“Son, racial issues are very often socio-economic issues.”

“What’s soss-eponomis?”

“I’m glad you asked. Poor people are often driven to do bad things to survive in our country. It’s not because they’re Black, or Asian, Latino or White. It’s because they want to have what you have: food, warmth, a few toys. It’s not because of skin color. It’s because of money. You understand?”

“But because of the actions of a few desperate people, an entire population is found guilty. And that’s wrong.”

“Daddy? Can we play trains, now?”

“One second, buddy. I’m on a roll. Here’s number 3 ½: The system is stacked against poor people. Some kids don’t do well in school, but it’s not because of their skin color. It’s because of a whole host of reasons: they have underfunded schools, they didn’t eat breakfast, no one read to them like I read to you.”

“Daddy? Can you stop talking? Pleeease?”

“Buddy, I just need to finish this one point: some kids drop out of school because they don’t have support at their house to strive for greater academic achievement, but that doesn’t have to do with their skin color.”

He starts singing “Let it Go” and tuning me out.

“Some parents can’t give successful tools to their kids, but that’s unrelated to their skin color. They never had those tools in the first place, because they weren’t born into a lucky position with support and resources. It’s a repeating cycle throughout generations. But it’s about economics, not skin color.”
He walks away from me. I pursue.

“Buddy, you can empathize. But you cannot make blank statements about groups of people and you cannot discount how people feel. But you can ask why and you can seek to understand the world through their eyes.”

“Daddy? Stop talking. You play with green trains. I don’t like them. They’re green. I want the purple trains.”

I’m glad we had this discussion.

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