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growing up

Do Our Kids Need “Trigger Warnings” This Year?

pool with ladder

Throw ‘em into the water.

OK, I confess: I would never throw my kids into the water, expecting them to learn to swim from sheer survival instinct–no matter what the Talmud, which suggests arming them with swimming skills asap, might suggest.

I’m more of a water-wings-while-I’m-holding-them-tight kind of ima (that’s Hebrew for “mom”).

Yet, this summer, I found myself literally letting go. My younger son wanted a hands-off approach to learning to swim. I believe his words were, “Stop holding me with your hands!” And when I, for a few seconds, allowed him to kick his legs and flop his arms with only the “floatie” supporting him, he shouted proudly, “I just did that!”

I’m not sure if I was teaching him to swim, or if he was teaching me.

As a mother of two and as a Rabbi at a university, I am always teaching, just as the Talmud obliges: tradition, family, occupation… and swimming.

The first three might seem obvious: Judaism grounds its values in Torah, cautioning against hastily rejecting or transforming the ancient in favor of the novel. Judaism sees the home and the family (however broadly we might define “family”) as a space not of private refuge but of community service and connection. And Judaism does not shy away from the realities and needs of the “outside world.” We want those we nurture to be capable of nurturing others, and to value doing so.

But, why swimming?

11th century scholar Rashi gives a straightforward answer: What if your son should one day travel by boat, and drown because he did not know how to swim?

Sure, I am teaching my sons to swim because they must master that essential skill. But as many Jewish parents like to extrapolate from that passage, we were also obligated to teach children and students to swim in a broader sense.

This fall, that means considering “trigger warnings.”

In recent years, academia has buzzed with the concept of “trigger warnings,” a term championed especially by young liberally-minded folks. Emerging from the very real (and painful) experience of victims of sexual assault and other forms of traumatic violence (whether isolated or institutionalized), trigger warnings represent a call for awareness and sensitivity on the part of educators and administrators when they might be including potentially re-traumatizing material in their courses.

Taken to the extreme, folks on the other side worry that trigger warnings can be forms of censorship and coddling.

The Talmud’s view on teaching our children provides us a more nuanced approach to the lesson our young students are attempting to teach us with “trigger warnings.” The Talmud cautions us not to allow those we are responsible for nurturing to go without the tools they need to thrive: a deep knowledge of their tradition and a sense of obligation to its continuance; an attitude that their “private” lives are not only an opportunity for personal leisure but for establishing community bonds, and the skills necessary to support themselves in their basic needs.

And swimming. Will our children and our students encounter danger, and risk? Yes. And it is our obligation to help them swim, not leave them to drown. Abuse and rape exist; racism and xenophobia exist. History has been written by so-called victors, unconscious of their privilege and the daily violence done to uphold it as though it were simply “the way things are.”

So, it is a teacher’s choice whether to present this information as value-neutral (I believe it is not value-neutral, for the record). If trigger warnings are used to decrease our children’s exposure to stormy waters or other unforeseen risks, then they are useless. But if the resistance to the notion of trigger warnings ultimately amounts to a “throw-them-in-and-see-if-they-swim-on-their-own” approach to teaching, that way has also failed.

What my brave young son taught me this summer is the very same lesson our Sages learned centuries ago: “I learned much wisdom from my teachers and even more from my colleagues–but from my students, most of all.” Our children, our students, have lessons to teach us, and I truly believe that “trigger warnings” are one of them: They are a call for us to teach our students to swim in a way that acknowledges the realities of both swimmer and water.

Are our students brave by constitution, like my younger son, or hesitant, like my older one? Is it hurricane season when they find themselves in the offshore waters, or is it calm? Are they carrying unseen histories of parental neglect, or the constant tyranny of the low expectations of racist teachers?

The Class of 2021 will arrive on my campus in just a few weeks. It’s a good time to remind myself of the obligation to teach them to swim. It is up to us, as parents and teachers, to help our children stay afloat, as befits their physical and mental capacity and their environmental need. Ultimately, we want our students to be able to swim a calm river equally as successfully as the choppy Atlantic in winter.

But we would never expect them to do both without a wetsuit. Carefully-worded content warnings from teachers may merely be the suit that prevents them from being shocked when they enter the water.

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