Home > Education, Family, Parenting, Reflections > MLK, Jr. through my four-year-old’s eyes

MLK, Jr. through my four-year-old’s eyes

I was excited to see my son is learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. at preschool.


He’s four, so the lessons aren’t complex, but they are a sweet opener for more difficult discussions to come.

Driving him to school the morning after seeing his worksheet, I asked, “What all have you learned about Martin Luther King, Jr.?”

“That’s because we made a chain to respect each other!”


I suddenly understood there was a deeper meaning to his link in the chain he’d shown me the day before. I’d suppressed giggles at our armlessness and super-flexible legs, but there was more to the picture than that. The fact each link in the chain represented a student’s family wasn’t happenstance, as I’d believed the day before. It reflected an opportunity for the kids in my son’s class to start learning respect even in the face of apparent differences.

“Do you want to know a little more?” I asked. When Li’l D said he did, I started explaining segregation at a level I thought a four-year-old could wrap his mind around. I was going to explain that his dad and I couldn’t have gotten married a few short decades ago.

wedding bw

He interrupted me. “What’s ‘white’?”

“Well, that’s the word people use to describe light skin like mine.”

I could see my son’s dubious expression in the rear view mirror. “No. It’s like yellow. Not white.”

Smiling, I said, “It’s not a very accurate expression. There are some people with white skin, but they have something called albini—albinoism? Same with ‘black.’ That’s a term people would use to describe your dad’s skin color.”

The astonished look on Li’l D’s face said what his words could not:

If people can’t even get their colors right, how do you expect them to get anything else right, either?

I wanted to tell him more, but it dawned on me he already understood what I’d hoped he would see early when I wrote “Race & my mother’s footsteps” two and a half years ago. I wrote then that I wanted him to be color impervious, not color blind. I wanted him to be okay seeing what is, including that we look different in a range of ways such as our skin colors, but that we shouldn’t ascribe innate significance to those differences.

Someday my son and I will talk about culture, and the kinds of privilege that have to do not with treats but inequity. But for now? For now, he is four, and doing a four-year-old-fine job of separating what’s important from unimportant.

Someday we’ll talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. was a human being with flaws and weaknesses just like any other, but that those weaknesses didn’t prevent him from being a powerful, peaceful force for change.

Someday we’ll talk about his visions of a world without poverty, as well as the dreams he had for his children and the ways in which those dreams have and haven’t been realized.

But for now, for right now, my son knows that Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to be a good man. A brave man. A fair man.

It might not be everything, but it’s a fine start.

  1. January 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    It’s a great start!

  2. January 19, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I love this. What a wonderful post.

    • January 22, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      Thank you so much. I wonder what my son will think of posts like these if he ever reads them . . .

  3. January 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    I know of preschools that don’t talk about MLK – the man or the day – or black history month because they don’t think the kids “get” it. So, so, so very glad your son has the chance to prove the world wrong, and that he is off to a fine start.

    • January 22, 2014 at 8:14 pm

      Based solely on personal experience, I think openness in discussions like these is a huge asset later in life; I believe it was for me and my siblings!

      Your comment makes me grateful for my son’s preschool experience. I am glad for what he learns there, and how it opens up conversations at home (or in the car). It makes me so excited to see his learning unfold. What more will he know in 5 years? In 10? I hope to enjoy every step of the way. 🙂

  4. January 20, 2014 at 4:22 am

    I remember your post back then and I’m glad it’s not among the lost. 🙂 And I remember my grandson did a pizza project on MLK. He had to fill a small pizza box with pages of info he created on MLK. I still have that pizza box. Today he is with us while his mother has to go to work and he has the day off. I think I will bring out that pizza box and go over its handmade contents by him with him today.

    • January 22, 2014 at 8:17 pm

      I, too, am glad it’s not one of hose that was lost! My thinking has changed in some ways since then, but writing through reflections like this was part of that change. I am glad for all these opportunities to reflect and wonder, including at your own pizza box recounting!

  5. January 20, 2014 at 5:05 am

    Oh I love his little quote about color…that is perfect! And you just prompted me to ask my son what he learned in school this week….thankfully they were taught a lot about him too. But I don’t know why I hadn’t asked him sooner..thanks for that!

    • January 22, 2014 at 8:19 pm

      It’s exciting to me that your son learned a lot, too!

      I used to regret how much time my son and I spent in the car together (versus snuggling or playing), but now I love the added opportunity to discuss. Silver linings thinking in some part, but true.

  6. January 20, 2014 at 5:25 am

    What a great start, it is so nice to know some pre-schools actually start the learning process at this age. It is amazing what children know and can learn at four and if given the opportunity, what they will retain.

    • January 22, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      It’s amazing to me, too. I remember thinking before D that kids were seven or eight, or even older, before they were really people with individual personalities. Now that D is taking to reading. In little steps, it amazes me to reflect on how the tiny blob I took home four years ago now knows so (comparatively) much about the eorld. It’s a gift to witness children growing and learning.

  7. January 20, 2014 at 7:54 am

    A fine start indeed. You are raising a smart and compassionate son (but you don’t need me to tell you that).

  8. January 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Wonderful post. Your son is learning amazing lessons.

  9. January 20, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    An excellent start!! It’s great the school is teaching about MLK, it’s great that you are talking about it at his 4-year-old level, this is how change happens and it’s great to be witness to it! Great job!!!

    • February 6, 2014 at 6:01 am

      I know some people are surprised by the kinds of conversations I have with D, but that’s a small part of a much greater amalgam. Even as I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, I remember the goodness of the sensation my mom trusted me to talk to me about Big Things. I love the thought of D having that feeling, too, even if it occasionally means a bit of sadness on his part. Usually the sadness is quickly transformed to hopefulness and seeing things in a different, sweeter light, which really does make me feel like I’m witnessing change in slow but beautiful process. 🙂

  10. January 20, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Bravo on having an honest discussion at his level of understanding, and also for acknowledging that the idea of being “color blind” is a crock–we see what we see! The idea is to learn acceptance and respect for others, and have an interest in finding out more about people who are different from us. Thanks for the terrific post, Deb. 🙂

    • February 6, 2014 at 6:04 am

      It is so awesome to read these words from someone else: the idea of being “color blind” is a crock! I remember trying desperately to unsee it before dating Anthony, then slowly growing into the idea it was rather strange to tell myself to stop seeing something that I saw. I want to see what is, not what I want, and learn to work within that very real framework. It was uncomfortable at first, but now . . . now it’s liberating to see what I see, and know that what I see with my eyes is only a very, very small part of a much larger picture involving many things incapable of being seen with the eyes. 🙂

  11. January 20, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Wonderful post.

    • February 6, 2014 at 6:04 am

      Thanks, Elyse! I’m so excited to see what else he’ll learn in the days, months and years ahead . . . and, of course, to see how that illuminates what’s already in his heart.

  12. January 21, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Radley used to have the same thoughts on color. He called his friends “brown.”

    • February 6, 2014 at 6:05 am

      This makes me smile, and also wonder what all factors go into changing these original impressions!

  13. January 22, 2014 at 7:48 am

    “color impervious, not color blind” – that’s an excellent way to put it, and what we all should strive for. Kudos for raising a child of the future I HOPE we will have.

    • February 6, 2014 at 6:06 am

      Thanks, Peg! I, too, hope that is the future we’re making for ourselves. My optimism might be cautious, but it’s optimism nevertheless. 🙂

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