What Martin Luther King can teach every parent

As I write this column, it is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. I listened to several of the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial and also King’s speech from 50 years ago in its entirety. Sadly, although we have made many strides in the direction of racial, gender and religious freedom, we have a long way to go. All progress advances in fits and starts — two steps forward, one back. It continues that way today. While same sex marriage makes progress, and we have our first African-American president, racial discrimination, personal profiling, gender inequality and denigration and punishment of those we perceive as different still permeate our society.

Fear is at the core of all prejudice and intolerance. When worry, skepticism and rejection turn to hatred toward someone we don’t even know and blinds our senses, the base line is fear. If we are to truly eradicate the violence in our society due to prejudice and intolerance, we need to look at where that fear begins.

Young children not only learn from the values of their parents — the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — but also from the treatment they experience at home and school from friends and family, how they are dealt with when their behavior is unacceptable, and their own interpretations and perceptions of what others say and do. Immature minds hear things differently than adult intentions may convey.

Our society incubates, nurtures and gets excitement from belittling others who are different from us. Our news is filled with the violence perpetrated out of hate and prejudice and fear. We love it. Peace and justice is rarely newsworthy.

In order to counteract the prejudice that young children in our culture encounter around every corner, a parent must be deliberate and conscious of what their children pick up on — what is fostered, allowed or ignored in schools, what media brings into their experience, how tolerance and acceptance are taught, modeled or ignored.

But most of all, parents need to be impeccable with their word. I do not mean perfect. I mean honest, honorable, moral, fair, responsible and trustworthy. A parent needs to behave toward oneself and others with integrity and never betray their own moral sense. A parent must be willing to listen, hear and understand other points of view — even ones of different cultures and different persuasions — without fear of being personally threatened by allowing that difference to exist. Listening, understanding and tolerance will then naturally extend to a child when that child resists the parent’s wishes or has a different point of view.

An impeccable parent will:

· know what she thinks is right but will also listen to and understand that her child sees things differently — and may even change her mind based on new understanding.

· get frustrated and angry but will take responsibility for his emotions and not blame his child for how he feels and behaves.

· not punish, belittle or put down a child with threats and blame thinking it will correct behavior, because she knows that holding power over anyone only encourages anger and fear in that person.

Martin Luther King encouraged and inspired impeccable behavior in those who followed his word. His leadership inspired and drew out the leadership in others. It gave others hope and determination. Many were willing to sacrifice their lives for their moral integrity and sense of justice. He never used power to put down those who put him down. Can we say that we do the same with our children?

If we want to inspire and influence our children to become moral, responsible grown-ups, we would do well to follow Dr. King’s lead: To never denigrate or disparage our children’s desires when we have to set limits on them, to be honest and truthful at all times, to respect their hopes and dreams even when they seem trivial or are not what we hope for them, to never use our power as adults “to put them in their place,” to never take out our anger and frustration on them as if they are the cause, and to always follow the code of nonviolence in action and in word.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email

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