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Four Social Skills That Can Teach Children About Equity Based on MLK’s Ideals

Teaching kids to value differences, fairness, imagination and empathy can help them understand equity and justice so they can practice them later on in life.
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Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 17, 2021.

In his stirring “I Have a Dream Speech” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin...” At the time, his four little children were 7, 5, 2, and 5 months old. King and his wife Coretta Scott King were activists who led from their ethical and spiritual beliefs, as well as from their experience and dreams as parents.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote about the moment their eldest daughter, Yolanda, asked to go to a local amusement park: “You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes that Funtown is closed to colored children.” In explaining to their young daughter why they could not take her to the amusement park, they also reiterated the importance of their activism: “You're not able to go now, but Daddy's working on it, and one day we will be able to go."

Teaching children about fairness plants a seed that can later be expanded to discuss racism, classism and other issues of inequity.

Just as Martin and Coretta King found the words to explain to their children the inequities that barred them from engaging in every part of life they deserved and desired, parents and caregivers today must still have similar conversations with children due to persistent injustice and discrimination. Educator, parent and founder of Parenting for Liberation, Trina Greene Browne advises, “When a fertile conversation topic presents itself, it’s important to plant a seed. And be mindful that it’s just that — a seed. Our children will, for the most part not be fully blooming with understanding after one or even several conversations. It has to be watered and nourished over time.” Parents and caregivers can plant and water the seeds of early development social skills that grow children’s critical understanding of the world and their power to change it.

Acknowledging and Valuing Differences

It is natural for young children to use concrete descriptions to point out physical attributes. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum notes “Children as young as 3 do notice physical differences such as skin color … [yet many] adults do not know how to respond when children make race-related observations … Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.”

Their own observations present opportunities to impart positive reinforcement of the differences they notice. Master teacher and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings discourages statements such as, “I don’t really see color, I just see children," or "I don’t care if they’re red, green, or polka dot, I just treat them all like children." Pretending not to see children’s’ racial and ethnic differences results in not seeing the children at all, she says. By addressing differences, adults can help affirm differences and dissuade negative judgments, stereotypes and treatment because of them.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers ideas for teaching young children to resist bias. Tips include to share books that reflect diversity and images not often presented in mainstream culture, and to learn from conversation tools such as the "PBS Kids Talk About Race and Racism” video. “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” also offers episodes that demonstrate the value of differences. Teaching kids to embrace differences can help them resist bias and become inclusive global citizens as they get older.

PBS KIDS Talk About FULL EPISODE | Race & Racism | PBS KIDS

Sharing and Fairness

In Browne’s book "Parenting for Liberation: A Guide for Raising Black Children,” professor and mother Tiffany Lanoix shares, “You can make any kind of conversation about equality more relatable … by connecting it to the idea of fairness.”

In his children’s book "My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” King’s son Martin Luther King III writes about he and his siblings enduring discrimination, and insults based on it, as children. The book has several encounters, especially involving where and how they were allowed to play, that can introduce questions with children about fairness, such as, “Do you think it was fair that some kids were allowed to go to the amusement park and some were not?” The “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” episode on sharing can be also used to discuss the importance of sharing when someone else does not have the same resources.

Parents and caregivers can learn more about the historic civil rights movements and continued movements for equity and justice by watching documentaries like "Many Rivers to Cross” and learning from other parents’ experiences in translating these concepts to children. Teaching children about fairness plants a seed that can later be expanded to discuss racism, classism and other issues of inequity.

Nurturing Imagination

King understood that racism and social justice were products of the imagination. Parents and caregivers can provide children with tools and experiences that expand their imagination and engagement with the world around them. Read stories that reflect positive images of themselves and others, and tell histories outside of their own personal or educational experiences. Poet Langston Hughes wrote many poems with the recurring theme of dreams; share poems like "Dream Variations” or "Dreams" and develop a poem with your children about the world they dream.

Use the concept of a vision board to create a collective dream board. Cut out pictures or words from magazines or have them draw their own pictures of what they would like to see in their community, city and world. Collage or cut and paste these images on a large piece of paper or poster board. Use the collective dream board to plan activities to support their vision. Create a dream with young children and reap the benefit of their vast imagination of what the world is and could be.

Having Empathy and Compassion

King’s words encouraged empathy for the injustices Black people faced. The Civil Rights Movement changed segregation laws and ultimately allowed the King family to enjoy a trip to the amusement park that their children imagined. Empathy and compassion motivated others to see how these issues affected the larger society and to become involved in the movement.

Parents and caregivers can make it a practice to cultivate kindness and compassion with children. Children can also relate to caring for friends and wanting them to be treated with fairness. Explore the story of Ruby Bridges (at 6 years old, Bridges became the first Black student to integrate an all-White elementary school in the South) and what they would do if she was their friend. The "Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood" episode on friendship and the story "Freedom Summer" demonstrate how friends offer empathy, care and help in facing problems. Many books about King’s life and leadership, including "Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King," display the connection between empathy and activism. These resources can also help in talking to children who may have asked about recent marches and protests about the importance of activism in our society.

Books such as “Last Stop on Market Street” and “City Green” can guide questions about helping neighbors and community. Take your children on a walk and talk about what they see:

  • What do they notice about the neighborhood?
  • What do they love about what they see?
  • Is there anything that they see on the walk that they do not like?
  • Ask what they think they can do about it and come up with ways to help them do it.

The resources here offer a few tools and ideas for utilizing children’s developing social skills to teach about equity and activism. After reading one of the Langston Hughes dream poems to my daughters, I asked them about their dreams and what they wish to be. My 4 year-old said, “I want to be everything I want to be.” As parents and caregivers, let’s fight for the world where our children can be everything they want to be.

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