Imagine two children vying over being first in line.
A typical 3-year-old: “You’re not my friend” only to proceed down the hall holding hands with “the enemy.”
A typical 4-year-old: “You’re not my friend now and you can’t come to my birthday party!” The sting, deeply felt by both sides, results in tears and righteous indignation for the rest of the morning.
Not much time passes between a child’s first words and learning to use language in powerful ways. Helping children become aware of how their words affect others—in both helpful and hurtful ways—is one of the most important parts of our everyday work at the nursery school. No “sticks and stones” philosophy here; we believe that words really matter.
Monday’s holiday meant we missed our weekly Get-Together, so on Wednesday, we gathered in the Music room to talk about my favorite hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is actually a superhero in my book because, like all great superheroes, he used his powers for good and to help people. And his special superpower was using his words.
I told the children about MLK’s boyhood in Atlanta, Georgia, and how children with brown skin like his couldn’t play with or go to school with children whose skin was pale like mine. And how his family couldn’t eat in restaurants, go to the library, swim in the pool, or go to the movies with people like me either. The world was a very unfair place and it made him very sad and very mad.
The reason that Dr. King is my hero, I explained, is that even though he felt very, very angry about these unfair rules, he didn’t hit anyone, yell at anyone, or hurt anyone. He didn’t throw rocks, buy a gun, or use a weapon. Instead, he used his words to convince many people that they could help him fix things. He thought, and he prayed, and he marched, and he talked until he had thousands of people who believed as he did. And he came to Washington and stood by the statue of President Lincoln (another big hero of mine), and told a million people about his dream. A dream that one day, his four little children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And things began to change.
In 1965 my family moved to Booneville, Mississippi from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was ten and South was in its second year of desegregation. Even at that age, I have clear memories of “colored only” drinking fountains and movie balconies, and the heated, angry tones of adult conversation about desegregation, especially when Dr. King was mentioned. It was a formative experience to be the only Yankee in my grammar school.
No matter where your politics lean, it is important to teach our children that powerful words can change the world. And, that it is a great thing to use your mind, heart, and voice to make this earth a better place for all of us to live. Here are some powerful big words from Dr. King that your children may bring home with them today: Freedom, Dignity, Equality, Justice, and Love. Ask them to share his story with you.