MLK Day and Nurturing Service in Your Kids

“Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”
                                                  –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Day, with its powerful message of friendship and peace, makes this January an ideal time for your family to learn about serving others.  But putting principles into action and teaching kids to focus on others can be challenging!

“2011 MLK Day of Service in Hartford, CT” by Dannel Malloy

1.  Explain that, after holiday presents have been played with and new clothes have been worn, we can remove the older things that are no longer exciting.  When donating the old, we make space for the new.  It’s a great way to make a fresh start in our closets and playrooms!

2.   Discuss how cold it is and how some people don’t have warm clothing or winter coats.  Tread lightly here.  Kids can become anxious after hearing stories about other kids who don’t have basic necessities.  You might say, “The only clothes in their closet are from a few years ago, so let’s give them new things to keep them cozy!”

3.  Show your kids the statistic that around 30% of all annual giving happens in December, at least for one online giving platform (so it might be true in other cases of giving, too).  In January, there is an enormous drop in those online donations.  Your family can help fill the need in any one of the less charitable months of the year.

4.  Come up with a few New Year’s resolutions.  Explain that both positive changes in life and accomplishing personal goals can come about while helping others.

“Resolving to Write More – a Worthy Thought” by Carol VanHook

5.  Talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of nonviolent action, generosity of spirit, and community service.  Ask your kids how Dr. King might have wanted his birthday celebrated.


1.  Volunteer at Cradles to Crayons.  We took our two older boys (ages 5 and 7) to help at its Giving Warehouse in Brighton.  We had a great time and my sons were determined to make sorting clothes into a competitive sport!  It was a gentle, hands-on way of introducing my kids to the concept that we, unlike others, have more that we need.

2.  Deliver meals to elderly residents.   By taking meals to homebound seniors and without having to leave the comfort of the family car, younger children can feel pride in knowing that they are doing something to serve their community.  Needham’s Traveling Meals program is a good place to start.

3.   Visit a senior rehabilitation or long-term care facility.  My dad and I used to deliver mail to elderly residents at the Brookline Health Care Center, and I can still remember the expressions of delight (and candy snuck to me!) when I walked into a room.  Many centers welcome family participation, as the presence of kids can be uplifting.  Newton’s Stone Rehabilitation and Senior Center is one place to call.

“Alameda County Community Food Bank” by Ecole Bilingue

4.  Collect food for a food pantry, or help at one.  Older kids might enjoy setting up or taking inventory of donations.  My high school students helped once a month at a church pantry.  It helped them to diminish the feeling of “otherness” of a food pantry shopper.  Younger kids can collect food from your pantry or the grocery store, or help bake a loaf of bread to donate.  Try exploring The Needham Community Council.

5.  Donate a used or newly bought item (maybe that gift you have no use for) to a local charity — You can donate gently used stuffed animals at Savers in West Roxbury or collect toiletries or baby items to create packages for Circle of Hope.  Or throw a collection party at the next sleep-under/sleep-over, where every guest brings one or two items that your child can give to a charity of her choice.

Afghan children examine donated school supplies in “A bagful of goodies” by ResoluteSupportMedia (crediting U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nestor Cruz). 


1.  A Dream of Freedom by Diane McWhorter (appropriate for ages 8 to 12 or to read with your kids) — This is a wonderful book written by a close family friend.  McWhorter won the Pulitzer Prize for her epic book about the Civil Rights movement, Carry Me Home.  This children’s book explores the various players of the movement in detail at an accessible level.

2.  Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport — Younger kids will find this introduction to Dr. King’s life both engaging and inspiring.

“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King award winning book” by Deb Nystrom, depicting cover of Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport.

3.  A blank journal — Start a gratitude journal with your kids in the form of a correspondence, writing down things that you are grateful for, and ask your kids to do the same.  You can offer simple prompts on index cards that your kids can pick out every so often.   “What clothes/food/family/
friends/activities are you thankful for today?”

4.  How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer — My kids looove this book! The authors succeed at making a complicated concept — brightening others’ lives actually brightens your own! — into a very literal, visual story.

5.  Kid President’s The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. video — There’s something powerful about a kid explaining history to other kids.

About the Author
Joanna Noon is a Brookline native who loves living in Needham with her husband and five children.  She worked in education before becoming a stay-at-home mom.  Joanna is a longtime member of Parent Talk and is excited to serve on the Parent Talk Board as Membership Co-Chair.


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