When we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., his powerful words and his effect on our nation, we tend to think about that magical day at the national reflection pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. We like to focus on his famous words, “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 but by the content of their character.” The pictures that usually accompany the quote are of sweet looking multi-racial children holding hands and smiling. That is a dream most people share, of children getting along on the playground, being kind, not caring about skin color or what kind of home they live in or where they eat breakfast. To that end we teach our children the Golden Rule to “treat others the way you want them to treat you”. And that works pretty well, until someone does something to your child that you don’t like and everything changes.

As parents we tell our children that they are the most special person in the world and we support those words with our actions. We give them what they want because we don’t want them to feel deprived, we back down on our expectations because we don’t want them to feel pressured or we are just too tired to focus on the goal this time, we automatically take their side in any situation without remembering that children often look at life through a “me only” lens. And though this is understandable, it does not prepare our children for future lives as responsible citizens.

To this end, I suggest that you read Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” and spend some time thinking about our personal responsibility for our own lives and those around us. And then think about how the following quote might lead us in a different direction as parents.

“We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. … And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.” (given as a sermon in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4, 1968)

The first part of this quote describes the personality and presence of almost every four year old child in America, full of the confidence that they can take on any challenge and come out on top. But like Dr. King told us, it is not just being first, it is how and why we are first that matters and it is what we do with first place that makes the difference. The future is being designed right now in homes all over America. What we teach our children today is what will guide the world in 30 years.

How are you building the future in your family? Share your ideas with us and let’s get started, together....

Watch The Drum Major Instinct Here

Our Favorite MLK Children's Books

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Featured Reading Activity:

Martin’s Big Words, The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR.

Written by Doreen Rappaport

Illustrated by Bryan Collier

To call this multi-award winning book beautiful is an understatement. It is beautifully written, beautifully illustrated, and beautifully imagined. Please start by reading the bios of both the author and the illustrator and read the book to yourself before sharing it with children.

When I was an elementary school principal, I bought this book for every grade and every classroom in our school as our January Book of the Month one year. We used it to not only inform our children, but to encourage and challenge and guide them to better walk their own journey in this challenging world. Every teacher read it and used it in a way that was appropriate for their class, as a parent you’ll need to use your understanding of your child to decide whether to share this book in its entirety. If you need some help with that, please email me for ideas.

One way to read this book to a younger child is to share the picture and only read Dr. King’s words shared on each page.

For example. On page one: Talk about the picture of young Martin and his Mom and share his mother’s words. "Martin’s mother told him: ‘You are as good as anyone.'"

On page 2: "Martin’s father was a preacher and he heard his father use big words to help people live as good people. Martin told himself, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to get big words, too.'"

On page 3: "Martin grew up and he used the lessons from his parents to make decisions about how he treated people and how he lived his own life. He said, ‘Everyone can be great.’"

Make decisions on the age of your child how to share this powerful book with them. This is a great book to share with children through middle school. For an older child, encourage them to write about Dr. King’s words and how they still challenge and guide us today. Perhaps a child that doesn’t love to write would make a poster of their thoughts and ideas. Read this book together as a family, take each page separately and talk about its message for us today.

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A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by David A. Adler

Illustrated by Robert Casilla

This is the story of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. told in easy-to-read text with simple and clear pictures. The story starts with Martin as a child growing up in the segregated south. His father is a pastor and his mother is a teacher, he has an older brother and a younger sister. He loves doing the same stuff as young boys all over America – football, baseball, basketball, riding his bicycle, playing games, singing. But, because Martin was Black, he was treated differently, and his choices were limited.

Martin was raised in a strong family with a firm belief in the power of God and the power of love over hate. He carried those family values with him throughout his life and used them to build his dream of a better world for all of us.

Talk about what your family values with your children. Use Dr. King’ birthday as a reminder that the moral influence of our early years and our family member’s beliefs will guide us throughout our lives. Even a preschooler needs to know that in our family we treat each other with respect and kindness. The Golden Rule is a simple way to share Dr. King’s message with a young child.

If we all spoke to others the way we would like them to speak to us it would be a much kinder world for our children to inherit.

Martin Luther King Day is Monday, January 16th this year.

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My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, JR

Written by Martin Luther King, III

Illustrated by AG Ford

Start this book by reading Marty King’s introduction on the first page of the book. WOW! Famous father indeed. I love Marty’s statement: “A lot of books have been written about my father. This book is written about my daddy…” And that’s the kind of story this is – a story about a father and a family.

As you read this story with your family, look for connections. (Your children look for connections in the stories they read in school.) Connect the story to your family’s life, the town you live in, other stories you have read together. Do you have brothers and sisters? Have you ever changed schools? Have you done something hard? These are all connections to this book.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a man who changed the world. Not many of us have parents that have done that, but our parents have still had an impact on us and on others. Share a story about your own parents with your child about a time they made you feel proud or helped someone or made a hard choice or showed you a different way of doing something. All the small stories of kindness connect to make a quilt of kindness in our families. Celebrate this.

Few of us will have the impact on the world of Dr. King, but by following his leadership and focusing on love as the answer to hate we can impact OUR PART of the world.

"One school at a time. One child at a time. One heart at a time. That is how the world is changed."