Our children are listening. When we pore over news sources and incessantly check our Facebook feeds to find out the latest from Israel and Gaza, our children are watching. When we whisper in muted voices or cry out in protest about the situation in the Middle East and the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, our children are hearing.
How do we talk to young children living far away from Israel about the current situation when they are not yet old enough to understand terms like “Zionism” or “anti-Semitism” or “terrorism” or “occupation”?
As parents of young children and also as Jewish educators, we would like to offer some tips for talking (and listening) to young children about the current conflagration.
1. Acknowledge that these are difficult times:
A father recently told us about a conversation he had with his 4-year-old daughter. “What’s wrong, Daddy?” she asked. “Nothing,” he replied, putting down his tablet. “Are you upset at me?” she wondered. “Of course not,” he replied. “Then why are you crying?” This father had not even realized that there were tears in his eyes as he read about the latest news from Israel, but his daughter noticed.
It’s OK to admit to children that we are worried, upset, and concerned about current events. This allows them to begin to understand what matters to us most. Our children also need to be reassured that we are upset around them but not because of them.
2. Think about what story you want to tell:
Whatever your beliefs about the current crisis and the larger conflict in which it is embedded, it is important to provide your children with a narrative structure for understanding it. Our research into how young children learn about Israel suggests that they may not be able to remember particular names, dates, and events, but they can make sense of new information about Israel when it is framed as part of a story told in language they understand.
In keeping with the adage of “two Jews, three opinions,” there are different ways you might feel comfortable framing the story in kid-friendly terms. For some American Jews, it is a story about Jews fighting to protect Israel from “bad guys” who want to hurt it. For others, it is a story about how two peoples want the same land, and haven’t yet figured out how to share (or divide) it. Some people may explain the current situation as a story about a fight that quickly got much worse than anyone intended. There are many kid-friendly permutations, and the stories can change to reflect the changing situation.
3. Whatever story you tell, be mindful of how you tell it:
Follow their lead.
Once children have a basic storyline, follow their cues to determine which details will be helpful to tell them so that their own curiosity can lead them to make sense of the complex world in which we live. You may have a lot to say about the situation, but kids often need to have difficult conversations in short bursts. They can pivot from “Will the fighting ever stop?” to “Can I have some watermelon?” without blinking. Move on when your children do, but let them know that you are ready to return to the conversation at any point when they have additional questions or thoughts to share.
Be willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
It is OK to tell children, “I don’t know,” or, “Even our leaders haven’t figured that out yet.”
Be deliberate when you use the words “we” and “us.”
You could be using these words to describe “our family” or “the Jewish people” or “those who care about Israel” or “people who share our values.” Children can get confused–and unnecessarily worried–when these different meanings bleed together. For example, kids can feel anxious when they hear, “we [Israel] are under attack so we [our family] are worried.” Try to be as clear as possible when you say “we” and “us,” particularly as it pertains to your children’s immediate safety.
4. Talk about what your family can do to help:
Talking about difficult times in a faraway place can sometimes feel beyond our control, so think about concrete things you can do to help. Some possibilities include:
This is an opportunity to model and tell the story of helping others in difficult times. Talk to your children about which organization(s) you are supporting and why, and enlist the help of older children in the decision making process.
Reach out to people in Israel that your children may know.
A Skype date or phone call with friends or relatives in Israel will not make anyone safer, but it can give your children and the people whom they contact a feeling of connection. This is a way of helping your children understand that the conflict is not only about places, but also about people–people for whom, Jewish tradition teaches us, we are all responsible.
Do mitzvot/good actions in the world.
Visiting a sick friend or helping an elderly relative cannot solve the crisis in the Middle East, but it can help renew our faith in the possibility and power of goodness in the world. Be mindful of modeling kind words and actions, and ask your children to name and enact ways of being good to others.
Solicit your children’s ideas for other ways to help.
One child we know suggested baking and selling challah in order to donate the proceeds. Another painted a “peace picture” to decorate his cousins’ safe room in Israel. Allow children to suggest their own ideas of what they would like to do to help, and empower them to contribute in their own way.
It can be hard for parents to reassure young children when the world feels like a much scarier place than it did a month ago. Yet as parents we need to continue modeling how Judaism can be a source of meaning and goodness in our daily lives. Not only does this help our children feel a sense of normalcy and comfort, but it can also help restore our own faith in the possibility of a better future and can, in these very dark days, offer a glimmer of light.