Talking to children about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. may not be as simple as your average history lesson.
Knowing what your child in particular can handle is the first and most important factor to avoid traumatizing them, says psychologist and mom Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble of Duke University Medical Center.
“For example, my 7-year-old is extremely sensitive to where she can’t even watch the news,” Breland-Noble says. “She still asks me about Libya. So, for my child, I would not be able to share what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. in [a straightforward] way.”
Breland-Noble suggests altering language based on the child’s maturity. She offers this milder example:
“King was a great man and he fought for the rights of all people. Some people were not happy with that. So, on April 4, 1968, someone took his life.”
“It’s not as much of a blow as ‘someone killed him,’” she says.
However, she doesn’t think that, in all cases, being exposed to King’s story in and of itself would scar a child.
”[Some children] watch movies or video games where there’s violence,” Breland-Noble says. “So, that child may not have the same effects.”
It’s up to parents to gauge and decide, she adds. And, to bring up the topic in a way that his or her child will understand.
When it comes to talking about death, very young children tend to be literal, and euphemisms such as “he went to sleep” may make them afraid to fall asleep themselves rather than understanding that the person died.
Slightly older children may internalize tragic events and fear for their safety and the safety of their families, not realizing the events happened long ago and are separate from their own lives.
Pre-teens begin to understand death and tragedy in a more concrete way. And, many experts agree that talking to high schoolers about death or tragedy is likely age-appropriate.
Discussions of death and tragedy also bring up concepts that are unique to each family, culture and religion.
For African-American children, the racial connotation of King’s assassination adds an additional weight to the story.
“There is a socialization piece that is very unique to African-American parents,” Breland-Noble says. “We talk about King and why he was assassinated, and part of that is he wanted African-Americans to have the same rights as everyone else.”
She says when telling King’s story to children, it can directly correlate to the other ways African-American parents socialize race and racism into their children’s lives. Children learning about King’s assassination may also be being taught about racially-motivated harassment from the police.
Breland-Noble herself is one generation removed from the Civil Rights generation. She notes that much less caution was taken when she was a child when African-American parents discussed black history and tragedies like King’s assassination.
“Our parents were shoving that stuff down our throats,” she recalls. “There was none of this conversation of, ‘Are you okay?’ There was a sense of urgency.”
Breland-Noble says African-American parents at that time often felt: ”’We don’t have the luxury of thinking about whether or not this is going to scare you. You have some battles you’re going to have to fight. You don’t have a choice to be nervous. I need you to go to school and get good grades.’”
She remembers arguing with her father about whether there would ever be a black president. Yet now, she feels that children have a whole different conceptualization of what black and white means in America.
“It’s a different generation,” she says.
Educators and psychologists faced similar challenges surrounding how to appropriately teach children about the September 11 attacks, in lieu of the 10-year anniversary.
This past summer, New Jersey released a statewide curriculum for teachers to utilize in the classrooms. The curriculum takes the same tragic story of the attacks, but makes it relevant to the age group.
Younger children, for example, learn about the impact of hateful words and bullying, middle school students learn about terrorism as a concept and high school students discuss reactions from the Muslim and Arab communities.
In the new curriculum, New Jersey teachers are cautioned on respecting that each child will react differently and to avoid very graphic material.
It also encourages teachers to tell their personal story to the students, to help them personally connect to such a difficult and profound time in American history.
These are the same tactics that Breland-Noble recommends when parents are doing the teaching about King’s assassination.
“You may have to reassure the child that it doesn’t happen every day but it does happen,” she says. “If you end the conversation and the child is upset over how [King] was killed, then you say: ‘here are some ways in which we protect ourselves.’”
Breland-Noble also says this opens the door to discuss issues of safety, such as why they aren’t allowed to talk to strangers, why the president has bodyguards, and things the family does to remain safe.