"The Time is Always Right to Do Right" Sharing The Lessons of Dr. King

January 17, 2022

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Day celebrates the work and remarkable life of a man who committed his being to ensuring that though “...the arc of the moral universe is long” it will”...  bend(s) toward justice” for all.  

It may seem that the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the journey of Dr. King and his work to erase segregation and injustice may be too big and complex for little learners. The fundamental lessons of Dr. King’s legacy, however, are lessons that we can share and instill in young children from the earliest years: treating others with respect, kindness, compassion, and empathy despite our differences; getting to know and understand one another - not just on the outside but on the inside, reaching out to help and show you care.  

It’s never too early to begin teaching and guiding children towards empathy and understanding, not only of their own emotions, experiences, and perspectives, but those of others as well.  Even when we can’t fully empathize with another person’s experiences, having never gone through them ourselves, we can learn to be open to listening to others’ experiences and let them know that we hear and recognize them. We may not fully be able to understand, but we can take in new information, listen to different perspectives, learn from others, and direct this new knowledge inwardly to shift how we exist and navigate our world. This may seem like a lot to ask a small child to digest, but when we make it a part of children’s everyday lives as we model for and guide them in empathy and compassion, it can become one of the most important muscles they build. 

Where to start? With Dr. King of course. There are core lessons from Dr. King that you can share with your children every day, not just on the third Monday in January to help these lessons become a reflex of compassion, understanding, and caring towards others.

Key Lessons from Dr. King to instill and share with young children and important quotes of Dr. King's that help to guide these lessons:

  • Respect - Listen to others, hear their voice, and understand that their voice is just as valid as yours.
  • Persistence - Encourage children to believe in themselves and to not give up even when something feels hard or difficult.

Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” 

  • Compassion - Guide children to always, always, always treat others the way they want to be treated. Ask children, “How do you want to be treated? What does it feel when someone is unkind to you?” Help them look inside of themselves so they can see the experiences of others in a new way and learn to treat everyone with kindness and care.
  • Embrace Differences -When children question differences, be sure to focus on a celebration of differences and ask children to think not just about our differences and how wonderful and special that makes each of us, but also about all the many things we share and have in common. What brings us all together? Connect that common thread to feelings that everyone experiences on a daily basis, both big and small.  
  • Resolving Conflict Together - Learning to listen to others and hear their “side” helps us to not only understand what has occurred from another perspective but also helps to resolve conflicts peacefully, without hurting someone. In modeling for and in and guiding children on how to use words to solve a problem, it shows children that conflicts can be resolved constructively using words, rather than in harmful actions.
  • Appropriately Express How You Feel - Help children to know that when you feel angry or upset, there are right ways to express your feelings in words and talk about what you need to make things better.
  • "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Using these words of Dr. King to show children that when someone is mean or treats you unfairly, you can make an impact on how to do things differently by showing them kindness in return. 
  • “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.” - When things seem unfair or are not the way you want them to be, stop...rather than lash out. Take that energy to be proud of yourself and to care and help others around you. 
  • We can all be heroes in our own way. Look around you - there is a friend who needs your support, your understanding, or just a hug.  You can change someone’s day with just a smile.

While the third Monday in January is a national holiday to celebrate Dr. King around his birthday, it is more than a day to remember; it is also a national day to learn and to honor his life of service. In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, which transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into a day dedicated to volunteer service in honor of Dr. King's legacy. Teaching young children to be kind, give themselves not just on this day but every day, and show them through your actions how best to celebrate differences, so that even in the smallest way, we can help to set this foundation of kindness, empathy, and caring for others.  Perhaps the greatest way to honor Dr. King is by ensuring the next generation is one of kindness and giving of oneself to help others around them and their world. 

The time is always right to do right.”

~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Reading stories together about Dr. King’s life and work, as well as stories of others who have helped to bend that “arc,” opens the doors to understanding and to opportunities for a wonderful discussion of how to honor his legacy by looking to ourselves and the impact we can make on others and on our world - no matter how small that world might be. Here are some of our favorite books to share and read:

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