My heart breaks with each update from Israel. Like so many others, I am worried sick about the human beings — and especially the children — who have been killed and taken hostage in this terrible tragedy. As a parent, it’s tempting to turn to my own children, who are mercifully protected from the terrors of Hamas, and avert their eyes from the terrifying events unfolding in Israel and Gaza. But as a social scientist who studies how American Jewish children and teenagers learn, think and feel about Israel, I know that our children desperately want guidance about how to make sense of the most difficult moments of contemporary Jewish life.
That’s why, despite my heavy heart, I’ve been speaking with my children about the recent events unfolding in Israel and Gaza. I’m offering you the language I’ve used with my kids — language that you can adapt to your own voice, your children and your political bent — as an example of how to begin this difficult discussion. Each of these conversation starters — different for early childhood, elementary, middle and high school students — are built upon the same principles: a belief that every child deserves an explanation of the current moment that is, at once, age-appropriate and honest, and an acknowledgement that every child needs adult guidance about what information is appropriate and trustworthy. For more tips on having healthy parent-child dialogue about difficult current events in Israel, check out this previous article that I co-wrote with my son.
I want to let you know that I’m feeling sad today because of a war happening far away in Israel. I wanted to tell you this because if you see me feeling sad today, I want you to know that it’s not because of anything that you did. It’s because of the war. And even though we are safe, I’m still feeling sad, and a lot of other adults are probably also feeling sad. At any time, you can share with me your ideas and feelings, and you can ask me any questions you have. Is there anything you want to ask me or tell me?
For elementary schoolers:
I want to share with you some very sad news. There is a war happening right now between Israel and its neighbor Gaza. Unfortunately, some people have been injured and some people have died in this war, and you’ll probably see that a lot of adults in our community are worried about the war. I wanted you to hear this sad news directly from me, because I want to let you know that you can ask me any questions and share with me any feelings you may have about it.
I also want to make sure that you know to come to me, instead of to Google, if you want to know more about this war — and it’s totally fine if you don’t want to know more. It can be really hard to tell what information online is trustworthy and what information online is appropriate for kids your age, so I’d like to be your source for any information you want to know. I don’t promise that I’ll know the answers to all of your questions, but I do promise that I will think seriously with you about your questions. Is there anything you want to ask me or tell me?
For middle schoolers:
I want to talk with you about some very difficult news. Hamas, which is a militant group from Israel’s neighbor Gaza, has attacked dozens of towns and army bases in Israel. Many Israelis have died, more have been injured and some were taken hostage. Many Palestinians, who live in Gaza, have also been killed and injured as Israel has responded. I’m pretty upset about this news and worried about what will happen in Israel and in Gaza in the coming days, and you’ll probably see a lot of other members of our community who are also sad or anxious. I wanted you to hear this very difficult news directly from me, because I want to let you know that you can ask me any questions and share with me any feelings you may have about it.
I also want to help you learn more about unfolding events, if you want to know more — and it’s totally fine if you don’t want to. If you do want to know more, I wanted to warn you that there are a lot of very disturbing pictures and videos circulating online, and it’s really important that you’re turning to appropriate news sources. I’m happy to be one of those sources, but if you’re going to search online, I’d like to request that you get your information only from a source that I think generally has pretty accurate and trustworthy (though sometimes difficult) information: [insert your trusted news source]. Is there anything you want to ask me or tell me?
For high schoolers:
I want to speak with you about some very difficult news. Hamas, a militant group in Gaza, launched an attack on dozens of towns and army bases in Israel, and Israel has declared an all-out war in response. The scale of these attacks is really unprecedented: Hundreds of Israelis have been killed, thousands injured and an unknown number have also been taken hostage. Many Palestinians have also been killed and injured in Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza. I’m pretty upset about this news and worried about what will happen in Israel and in Gaza in the coming days, as are many others in our community. I wanted you to hear this very difficult news directly from me, because I want to let you know that you can ask me any questions and share with me any feelings you may have about it.
Whether or not you want to, you’re likely to see things about this situation online and on social media, and I’d like to request that you use the same rules that I use for myself in online spaces at this difficult time: You can read as many (or as few) newspaper articles as you’d like about the current situation, but it’s best to avoid watching violent videos that are circulating online. This decision — to read and not to watch — will help us stay informed and make decisions in the coming days about how we can show support for people affected by this war while also helping us maintain our own mental health in a really difficult time. Is there anything you want to ask me or tell me?
As difficult as it may be to speak about the current situation, your children deserve to know about the unfolding tragedy in Israel. Research has shown that watching traumatizing events on repeat can be very unhealthy for children, but talking to children about troubling current events doesn’t make kids more traumatized. It actually helps them cope with living in a world in which troubling current events occur. Help your children learn to navigate the shards of our broken world; the first step is a conversation.
Join Kveller and The Jewish Education Project for a free webinar on October 10, 2023 about “How to Talk to Children About Israel Today,” featuring the author in conversation with Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath. Register here.