Letters From the Editor: Children inherently know MLK's message

My 5-year-old daughter started singing "We Shall Overcome" at the dinner table the other night.

I asked her where she learned the song.

At school, she said, explaining that they are teaching her about Martin Luther King Jr.

It's his birthday, she said.

I asked what she knew about him.

"Black people and white people were not allowed to go to the movies together," she said.

I was glad she had started learning about the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, it was a bittersweet moment. It was the first time I have heard her use colors to describe people.

Until this week, my little girl was blissfully unaware of race — or racism — and I was sad to see that innocence float away like a let-go balloon. It was nice knowing for at least awhile that she didn't know that some people judge others by their race, that adults are capable of such ignorance.

Her two closest friends are from backgrounds different from hers, and not once has she mentioned that they look any different than she does because, frankly, she never noticed. She was color blind, or should I say, blind to color.

Children her age don't need to be taught tolerance because in their natural perfection they already possess it. This is one of the reasons, I believe, people say children are godlike.

It is only when adults corrupt them with their biases that they begin to form opinions about people based on something as inconsequential as pigmentation. Somehow, as we age we lose the purity with which we are born.

While adults put people in boxes, my daughter classifies potential friends by the qualities she deems important, like kindness and playfulness. She is already judging other kids by the "content of their character." I wish we could all remain in that state.

At the dinner table that night, I tried to sum up MLK's accomplishments in terms a kindergartner would understand. I explained that "bad people" created unfair laws in "olden times," which is her term for any era before she was born (including her parents' lifetimes).

I emphasized that this was wrong, and that MLK and the people who marched with him helped rid the nation of these "dumb laws." Note that I am grateful that trained teachers are better equipped to present this material in an age-appropriate way.

But parents are also obligated to, as a song of that general era reminds, teach their children well. It was a hard but necessary first conversation about a topic we will one day discuss in full.

So as happy as I am that my little one is learning about MLK, just last week she didn't know that anyone ever labeled others by skin color. She called other kids by their names, and if she didn't know another child, she referred to them as "friends," a term primary teachers use for groups of kids.

My daughter, for example, will say, "All the friends went to the playground," or, "All the friends were in the cafeteria."

I wish more adults could see race through the eyes of kindergartners — meaning they wouldn't see it at all — and revert to that place when everyone is nothing more than "a friend."

JOHN CANALIS is the editor for the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.

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