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The Perfect Childhood

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

A friend group. A pack of kids who play together. Most neighborhoods have them. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no different. In King's neighborhood, little white boys and black boys played together every day. Until something happened.

One of the white mothers told Martin he couldn’t play with her sons anymore. She told him never to come to her house again. We’ve all heard some version of that story, usually this time of year, in recognition of MLK day.

Years ago, I showed my students a movie that had a re-enactment of this scene. It was hard to watch. Little Martin ran straight home and told his mother what happened. Mothers usually know how to make things better, and Mrs. King was no different. In the movie, the mother soothed her son and said all the right things. “People who know better, understand that the color of your skin doesn’t matter. People who know better don’t act that way.”

It was a powerful scene for my students to watch. Certainly a life changing event for the young man who would grow up to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

Every year, as we celebrate Martin Luther King and all of his accomplishments, I think about watching that movie with my students. I think about the little boy who got his feelings hurt by the mother of one of his best friends.

I remember the discussions we had each year after watching the movie. We talked about how young Martin felt. The students gave the perfect answers: sad, confused, angry. We talked about how the little white boys felt. Answers were the same. Sad, confused, angry.

I didn’t ask the students this question: How did Mrs. King feel that night? I didn't ask the children that question, but as a mother, I know the answer. Mrs. King probably felt helpless or full of rage. She had to be full of emotion on the inside. But on the outside, at least when she was in front of her son, she was calm. She made her decision out of love. And her little man turned out just fine.

What I didn’t ask the children, but what I still wonder about today is this: how did the white mother feel that night? There’s no easy answer. Was she relieved that she had once and for all “fixed” the problem. Was she sad because she was simply doing what her racist husband told her to do? Was she confused herself because she knew how well the boys played together and how much they loved one another? That’s the piece of the story I would love to hear. Whatever the motivation, she probably made her decision out of fear, and that’s never a good thing. I would love to know how her little white boys turned out.

As a mother, I would want to march over to that white lady’s house and give her a piece of my mind. The mother bear in me would want to make things right.

Maybe the two mothers had a throw down that never made it to the history books. I would love to know. But here’s what I keep thinking about.

Maybe what we want for our children isn’t the thing that’s going to make them great. Maybe what we want for our children isn’t what’s best for them in the long run. Sometimes, true greatness may come out of the very deep heart break we try so hard to shield our children from.

No mother wants her to child to be hurt or isolated or offended. But the incident that happened when King was just a little guy was a key moment. It shaped who he was going to be. Maybe he had to feel the sting of discrimination himself in order to have the drive to want to eliminate discrimination for others.

What if King’s mother had “fixed” everything the way parents are wont to do, myself included? What if she had found other white friends for him? What if she convinced her husband that the family should pack up and move? In today’s world, we would put the kid in therapy and label him a victim and treat him for anxiety.

But Mrs. King’s simple and honest explanation may have set things in motion. Maybe the hurt had to happen. Of course, Mrs. King would never have chosen that for her son, but maybe it had to be.

The movie portrays Mrs. King as a pillar of strength and kindness when her son explained why he was crying. I always wondered what happened later. What was she feeling after she tucked her son into bed?

I wonder if Mrs. King cried that night. I bet she did. I wonder if she couldn’t wait for her husband to get home so he would hold her in his arms. I wonder if she called her own mother for comfort.

History tells us young Martin was exceptional even as a young boy. Learned to read before he started school. Skipped 9th and 12th grades. Started college at 15. His accomplishments were many. I wonder if deep inside Mrs. King knew her little boy would change the world. Did she just have a feeling, like so many mothers do, about things like that? I like to think that somehow she knew that tremendous good would come from the hurtful words and actions of a white woman who didn’t know better. But on that day, in that moment, she probably just hurt like any mama would hurt.

Most parents want their children to have a perfect childhood. That’s a pretty hard goal to achieve. Maybe the bumps and bruises that we try so hard to avoid are the very struggles that mold our children into the people they are supposed to be and the lives they are supposed to live. Maybe they will be kinder, stronger and more resilient because of these bumps in the road.

Mrs. King was calm and wise when her little boy cried his heart out. She comforted him and sent him on his way. His life certainly was not perfect, but he turned out OK. It’s a pretty good parenting lesson. Rather than trying to put our children in a bubble, I wonder if we should focus on teaching resilience. Maybe creating the perfect childhood shouldn’t be the dream. Maybe teaching compassion in all circumstances, and grit when the times get hard would be a better goal.

I think Dr. King and his mother would agree.

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