Parenting Lessons from Martin Luther King

This year, on Martin Luther King Day, I came across a slideshow of a few of his quotes.  As I read them, I thought: wow, are there some great parenting lessons here.

We think of Dr. King as an example of how to lead, and how to fight against injustice. But the lessons he taught us are really about being good people. And those are the lessons that parents need to teach; as the first and most important teachers of children, what we say to them and show them has everything to do with the people they grow up to be.

Here are four lessons from Dr. King that all parents should teach their children:

Speak up—and act—when there is something wrong. “The time is always right,” King said, “to do the right thing.” We often think that somebody else will do it, or that we shouldn’t, or that we can’t. But we can and should speak up.  We can be so powerful when we do. We are powerful as individuals and even more when we speak up and act together. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We can teach our children this. Starting when they are small, we can empower them to not just stand up for the bullied kid on the schoolyard, but to make a real difference in the world.

Don’t answer violence with violence. Following in the example of Mahatma Gandhi, nonviolence was a central belief for Dr. King. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” he said. “Only love can do that.” It’s a natural instinct to want to fight back, but so often that only makes everything worse.  When we fight back, we escalate the situation, we make enemies, we make it hard to negotiate and find solutions—and we increase the hate. By talking with our children about Dr. King’s example and efforts, we show them that there is another way.

We are all equal. I think that kids get this better than adults do—at least, that is, until we influence them otherwise. If we can reinforce this lesson of tolerance in our parenting and in our communities, we could go a long way toward helping those who are different from the crowd, those whose beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, income, appearance or abilities set them apart and make life hard for them. We could go a long way toward building a society where anyone really could have a chance. Dr. King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech that he hoped his children would “…one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That’s not just up to politicians. That’s up to parents.

Be proactive. Even more than speaking out when we see a problem or injustice, we should be teaching our children that there is always something they can do to make the world a better place. As Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

It doesn’t have to be about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It can be a kindness to a younger brother. It can be helping an elderly neighbor shovel. It can be walking someone’s dog—or holding a door for a stranger, helping someone pick up dropped groceries. It could be returning a lost wallet. It could be a smile. Which leads me to the last lesson, possibly my favorite:

Put your heart into all you do—even the small things. “If I cannot do great things,” Dr. King said, “I can do small things in a great way.”

If we could raise our children to believe and live that, the world would absolutely be a better place.