The first time my then four year old son learned about Jim Crow laws and segregated lunch counters, he burst into tears. I learned a good parenting lesson that day: Don't spring huge chunks of possibly disturbing information on kids. Especially on overly sensitive kids. Especially on overly sensitive kids who had taught themselves to read by age four and so were now equipped to do even more research on their own. Research that I may have thought was too advanced for them. (I've written before about the fallacy in believing that just because a child can understand each word he reads, that means he can actually understand what he's reading.)
With my subsequent, equally sensitive children, I made the conscious decision to introduce them to disturbing facts of life and history... even sooner.
Yes, sooner. My theory was that if kids were regularly exposed to tough subjects before they could fully comprehend them, then comprehension wouldn't come with as a big of a shock since, on some level, they'd already known it all along. Furthermore, they wouldn't blunder totally unprepared into a non-fiction book, encyclopedia article, or even a historical novel as they surreptitiously sneak out of the children's section and check out what the adult corner of the library has to offer. If a bright kid wants to learn something, that bright kid will make darn sure he learns it. You can't stop them. The least you can do is prepare them.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned Jim Crow laws and segregated lunch counters. Martin Luther King Jr. Day - this year taking place on January 21, 2013 - is a perfect time to introduce your children to some of America's darkest days... in a child appropriate manner.
If you live in New York City, you can commemorate the holiday with parades, workshops, book readings, movies, arts & crafts, music and more. (Remember, you'll need to do something. It's a federal holiday, which means schools are closed. So you'll either have to teach them, or they'll sneak off for some unauthorized learning on their own.)
Check out the complete list of MLK Day activities at Red Tricycle, here.
And, lest we end this on a downbeat note, here's an article about how my daughter was named in honor of Martin Luther King. In a very, very roundabout way, at: http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/how-martin-luther-king-helped-name-my-daughter/