Monthly Archives: January 2015

On Martin Luther King, and teaching kids right from wrong (spoiler alert: It’s hard)

MLK1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftrMy four-year-old son was asking me a few days ago why school will be closed on Monday. He doesn’t care for school being closed, and asks to know the precise reason why he has to endure this. I told him it was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and asked him what he knew about Martin Luther King. Here’s what he said: “Martin Luther King was someone who used very big words when he grew up. And then he died.” Technically, what he said wasn’t inaccurate. Still …

My first reaction was to take issue with his school for not teaching him in better detail about MLK. Then I got over my momentary lapse into short-sighted self-righteousness, and remembered that I am the boy’s mother–oh, riiiight–and it is not, ultimately, the school’s responsibility if he hasn’t learned about Dr. King.

So I began to start to try to tell him. That’s when I realized he may not know, at this age, the difference between black and white, or any of the races, for that matter. I mean, it’s just not something we have talked about explicitly in our house. Apologies to anyone who feels that my husband and I have been negligent in this regard. The boy is four years old, and he gets along with everyone (with about two exceptions) of every race that he’s ever met. He knows he is half-Puerto Rican. His friends have been white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed like him, etc. I simply don’t think it’s ever occurred to him that these differences can cause people to act differently–more importantly, unfairly–toward each other. In a sense, the reason why my boy doesn’t have school on Monday is because of racism. To explain the holiday to him was to burst his bubble. And that made me kind of queasy.

But I started. It was Friday afternoon. We were driving to Baskin Robbins after I picked him up from school. (I highly recommend surprising your kid with an impromptu after-school ice cream run.) I told him Martin Luther King is an American Hero, on the hunch that using the term hero would hold an appeal for him. I was right. He perked up, and instantly became interested. I fumbled and stumbled my way through a summary of how once upon a time, black people were treated very, very unfairly in America. Fairness is another concept that I know resonates with him. Naturally, though, my mind was screaming in protest about the once-upon-a-time part. If recent events in our country have revealed anything, it’s the staggering, nauseating, deadly pervasiveness of prejudices and inequalities based on racial differences. But. MLK was the topic at hand, and I told myself there’s no reason to force dire nuances on the kid if he’s not asking to know them at this time. He will learn soon enough–and no, I do not and will not defer to school to do the work of teaching him about this.

So I continued. I told him that Martin Luther King thought that everyone should be treated the same, whether they were black or white, or of any color. I consciously choose to use black as the more accurate term. Extreme political correctness all too often comes off as trite and inauthentic, in my opinion. See the story about CNN’s Chris Cuomo just last week using African-American incorrectly. So I try to stick with more transparent language. I told my son that MLK suffered injustices for defending everyone’s right to fair and equal treatment. That he was very brave, and never gave up. So we honor his birthday on Monday, again, because he’s a hero. My son seemed satisfied enough with this explanation. Once we got to Baskin Robbins, the one item on the agenda was chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone.

The challenge One of the countless challenges in teaching a young child ethics happens when doing so entails him being aware that sometimes in life, it feels as though things really suck, with no rhyme or reason. It’s “easy” enough for him to grasp this concept when he is affected by it on a very personal level, like when the answer to something he wants has to be no, and he’s pissed about it. In those moments, my response tends to be something along the lines of, “I know you are disappointed, I’m sorry you’re upset, we all feel that way sometimes, I love you, the answer’s still no.”

For about a year when he started watching the movie Toy Story, we skipped the Sid scenes completely. Dude, Sid’s toys are flippin’ scary to a three-year-old. Then there’s the whole meanness issue. Over time, though, when we thought he could tolerate the scariness, we let him watch those scenes. We’ve used them to talk about kindness and unkindness. About consequences. About bullying and abuse. And about disabilities, how Sid’s toys might seem scary at first because they look different, but they aren’t “bad.” Some great conversations have come out of this. Ultimately, it’s a fact that there are mean people in the world, odds are good my son will encounter a few of them; why not discuss these topics at home, first?

When the world at large becomes involved, it obviously gets trickier. We see the entitlement in this generation of kids. And we don’t wish to contribute to it. But there’s a way of teaching kids about others who are less fortunate that can lead them to feel like wretched beings who are to blame for world hunger. To a degree, I was subjected to this type of morality growing up, and I really, really don’t want to do that to my child.

At Christmas, for instance, we make a shopping trip for non-perishables that we then take to a food bank. We also collect some of his old toys to give away. The idea, as we try to convey to him, is that if we want to receive gifts, we first make room in our hearts by giving and sharing. Again, though. I struggle finding the balance in teaching him that there are others less fortunate than ourselves, without feeling as though I’m guilt-tripping him. Nor do I like the idea of doing something like it’s an obligation you take care of and check off, then pat yourself on the back for it. “So be right(eous) for righteousness sake?” Uh, no thank you.

For now, I think he knows his actions have consequences for others, both good and bad. Beyond that, I strive to lead by example, and stay focused on one thing: that we are all the same. That–on the most basic, logical level–it makes no sense to do to someone else something we wouldn’t like being done to us. For what it’s worth, I think he has a sense of that. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

You know, you have a baby, and you spend the early stages just trying to keep him alive, safe, fed, clean, and content enough. Then the realization dawns on you (or maybe it was just me being slow on the uptake) that you are responsible for delivering to the world a well-rounded human who’s not a pushover but who also gives a genuinely empathetic sh*t about others. Who knows he is worthy of love and joy, but doesn’t feel or act entitled. You know, all that fantastically easy stuff. No pressure. No big deal. And then … ? We all just do the best we can. How do you talk to your kids about (in)justice?

 

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