Why We Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day: How to Explain the Holiday to Kids

It is important to celebrate the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and find ways to apply his teachings into our everyday lives and the lives of our children. Learn about this special holiday in January with our guide to MLK Day.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the famous American civil rights leader who dedicated his life to achieving equality for people of all colors. Although few kids would question a day off from school, some may wonder why there is an entire day devoted to one man. Dr. King's message of peace and justice touched many Americans. The national holiday that remembers him is a time to learn about history and reflect on some valuable messages that are still meaningful today.

A collage of images of Martin Luther King Jr.
Getty Images (3). Art: Jillian Sellers.

Wondering how to start the conversation? Here are the facts on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (or MLK Day) and its cultural significance in terms simple enough for kids.

When is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the third Monday in January, near Dr. King's birthday on January 15. Although MLK Day is a federal holiday, it is designed as "a day on, not a day off," says Sarah Hamilton, a social impact consultant. "This is a day of service that helps to strengthen communities, bridge barriers, address social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King's vision of a beloved community," says Hamilton.

Why do we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Dr. King wrote, spoke, marched, and stood up for what he believed in. "What is unique about MLK Day compared to other federal holidays is that it is the only holiday designated as a national day of service," says Hamilton says. "MLK Day not only honors the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it encourages all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities."

The holiday also serves as an opportunity to educate and demand social justice in real and tangible ways. Founder of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast Jen Lumanlan finds that there is still very little understanding among many people—and parents—that the actions they may take daily actually contribute to perpetuating systemic racism. "We have this idea that if we're all just going about our lives and we're nice to Black people that there's no real problem—but the schools we enroll our children in, the ways we advocate for our children, and the opportunities we make available to them have very real consequences that reproduce inequalities."

Talking to Kids About Civil Rights

A significant difference between the movement Dr. King led in the 1960s and that of recent years is that today, we see families from all races supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. And our experts agree: children can comprehend conversations about civil rights. As parents, we might have a desire to protect kids from uncomfortable conversations, especially those about people doing things we might wish hadn't happened. But children today are aware of the protests following the George Floyd killing because it resonated with many young people of all races. Nearly 1 in 5 members of generation Alpha have taken part in a march or protest on an issue they care about.

Matt Albert, Ed.D., executive director of the Center for Reflective Communities, believes children can learn two most important lessons from Dr. King: young people have the power to make a change, and racism is alive and well, specifically in ways that are much harder to see.

Jen Lumanlan, Founder of Your Parenting Mojo

"The schools we enroll our children in, the ways we advocate for our children, and the opportunities we make available to them have very real consequences that reproduce inequalities."

— Jen Lumanlan, Founder of Your Parenting Mojo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes Children Can Understand

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Ph.D., is an author, advocate, and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was just 12 years old when Dr. King came to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to prepare children, like him, to march peacefully in protest for their civil rights. "I had the chance to listen to Dr. King in church, and I was inspired when he told us that tomorrow could be better than today. Most important, he conveyed his confidence in children to be a part of the crusade against racism by helping with the organization and leadership of that march," Dr. Hrabwoski explains.

Here are a few famous quotes from Dr. King to recite and talk about with children:

  • "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."
  • "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it."
  • "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."
  • "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."
  • "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true."

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Activities for Kids

There are many things to consider when teaching our children about Dr. King and the day we remember his legacy. Start by sharing why we celebrate Dr. King and what his life and actions have done to better our current world. Here are a few suggestions from our experts for children of all ages:

Read Books About Martin Luther King Jr.

So many great stories have been written to teach about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Find a comfortable and safe way to tell Dr. King's story to your kids in an age-appropriate way by reading one of our favorites:

Watch movies with themes of racial injustice.

Lessons and stories of social justice played out on film will resonate with the latest generation. They are comfortable with action and taking what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Here are a few popular movies to watch depending on your child's age:

Discuss with the intent to listen.

Have a conversation about what you all read and watched. Explain in an age-appropriate way what life seemed like for Black children when Dr. King was alive. Ask them these open-ended questions to facilitate a deeper understanding:

  • What was so unique notable about the way Dr. King encouraged people to take a stand?
  • What do you think the world would be like if Martin Luther King Jr. had not stood up for civil rights or helped to organize others?

If your children are younger, have the conversation and ask them to draw pictures about how it would make them feel to be treated in this way. In both instances, encourage your children to explain why the world is a better place because of Dr. King.

Brainstorm ways your family can make a difference.

Remind kids that Dr. King worked hard and was willing to give of himself to benefit a cause. You can choose a specific cause that interests your kids and give back together. One of our favorites: The ASPCA. If your kids are serious animal lovers and want to protect their furry friends, consider contacting your local ASPCA to lend a hand at a shelter. Get more inspiration of ways to serve by visiting the AmeriCorps MLK Day of Service website and searching for volunteer opportunities in your community.

Reiterate the importance of education.

During the Civil Rights Movement, an entire generation learned the importance of getting an education to eradicate systemic racism, explains Dr. Hrabwoski. "That lesson is just as important today," he says. "We need to encourage children and young people to get an education so they can be part of the solution, whether as a lawyer, a social worker, a teacher, a doctor, a scientist, or in another role."

Dr. Hrabwoski concludes with an exciting thought: "Initiatives such as the Children's Crusade empowered young people to believe they had a role to play in solving the challenges of racism in our society. Today's generation of children and young people are fighting to be heard." Indeed, MLK Day serves as an opportunity for our society to celebrate Dr. King's teachings, educate children on racial injustice, and remind parents to listen to the voices of young people.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles