10/16/2013 08:32 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Martin Luther King III -- A Famous Father's Advice to Parents on Bullying

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

It's hard being the new kid in class, especially when you're the only African American kid in a newly-desegregated Gr. 3 class in racially-divided Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1960s. And when your parents are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, heroes of the civil rights movement, you know you're going to be a target for bullies.

Martin Luther King III told us recently that when he was eight, another boy targeted him daily, hurling racial slurs like the n-word at him. "I don't know why you're here at our school," the boy would say.

King says he noticed his tormentor spent his free time drawing, so one day when he saw the boy hunched over a piece of paper in class, he wandered over. The bully was sketching an exquisitely detailed battleship. "You know, that's really good. You're very talented," King said.

The boy looked up, startled. "Really?" From that point on, his hostility began to melt away.

"Although I was black and he'd been taught it was something wrong with me, he started looking at me differently because I was kind," King told us.

We spoke with King at a recent We Day; he's graciously offered to speak his message of non-violence at all of our We Day events. We asked about his life's mission, expecting to hear about continuing his parents' fight for civil rights and against racism, but that day he told us his first mission is to be an outstanding father to his five-year-old daughter, Yolanda. He wants to raise her the way he was raised -- to care for others and resolve conflicts non-violently. Intrigued, we sought his advice on how parents can raise compassionate children who aren't bullies.

At least one in three Canadian adolescents report they have been bullied. When we speak with students, we consistently hear that bullying is one of the most important issues for them. And parents, of course, want to protect their children from bullies, and prevent them from becoming bullies.

This famous father's advice? Teach by example. "What we want our children to be, we should also be."

As civil rights leaders in a racially-charged time in America's history, the King family experienced some of the most extreme bullying imaginable from racists and political opponents. King tells us he learned about respecting others by watching his dad in action during the fierce political debates over civil rights.

"Dad had a way of disarming people because he never really directly attacked them. He might attack a principle, but he never attacked the individual. I think that's what I subliminally picked up on."

In 1968, when King was ten years old, his father was assassinated. He tells us it was his mother who taught him to forgive and not give in to hate, even for those who oppose and attack you. Think of them as adversaries, not enemies, she told him.

One such adversary was Barry Goldwater, a conservative Senator who had vehemently opposed the national civil rights legislation King's father supported in 1964. A few years after his father was killed, King remembers his mother campaigning for a holiday to honour him. She met with Goldwater to try and win his support for the idea -- he responded with hostility. Despite his rude dismissal of her plea, King says his mother remained gracious, never raising her voice or becoming disrespectful.

King told us another story of learning forgiveness and compassion from his grandfather. When King's grandmother was gunned down in church in 1974, his grandfather visited the killer in jail. He forgave the murderer and offered to pray for him, even as the man was threatening that he would kill the rest of the family if he ever got out of prison.

King tries to be the role model for his daughter that his parents and grandparents were to him. The pride in his voice was clear as he talked about watching Yolanda handle a playmate who was verbally abusing her. Instead of shouting back, or getting physical, Yolanda simply said, "Don't treat me like that--that is not kind. I am trying to be kind, so you should be kind."

Shocked by the unexpected caring approach, the girl stopped taunting her.

"Our kids are reflections of us," King said to us. "How we interact with others, even in a hostile situation... how we respond and our children see that is how they are going to respond."

When that car cuts you off, or the girl at the fast food counter gets your order wrong again--it's tough to bite back the curse or the scathing remark. When someone is yelling at you, it's hard not to get right back in their face. Just remember: your kids are watching.

Responding with kindness is obviously not a panacea cure for bullying--especially in the tragically extreme cases where teens are driven to medication or even suicide. But it will help fight the problem. If your kids see you treating others with kindness and respect, hopefully they will follow your example. And as King showed us, sometimes kindness is the best way to disarm a bully.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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