During our last snow day, my 4-and-a-half-year-old took tubes and cardboard out of the recycle bin, decorated them, taped them together and started marching around the living room. When I asked him what he was doing, he answered, “I’m having a protest.”
About what, he couldn’t say, but I think it is a sign of the times that this is what he is interested in re-creating. He has yet to attend a real-world rally, but he sees my husband and me and his brother going to them, and certainly hears talk about it at home and out in the world. One of the protests we took our older son to was against the travel ban, in support of refugees.
It had been comparatively easy to talk to my kids about our desire for access to affordable healthcare, equal rights or protecting the planet from harm. These are all ideas that, one way or another, they can grasp because that they have some experience with in their daily lives, whether it be going to the doctor or sorting the recycling. The refugee crisis has been more challenging to explain.
But since we were going to protest against the executive order, I knew that I had to help my kids understand it in the most appropriate way I could.
First, we talked about what are some of the values, ideals and institutions that might make someone want to come to America to live if they didn’t like where they were living. We talked about being able to practice our Judaism freely, without anyone telling us we need to be something else. We talked about the police and firefighters who help people in need. We talked about roads and schools and the fact that we get to vote and participate in our government. We also talked about the fact that, in America, if you don’t like something you are free to try and change it, by calling your elected officials, protesting or writing letters, all of which they have done. Yes, I’m fully aware that I painted a pretty rosy picture of the United States for them, but for the purposes of this conversation, I felt it was important for them to understand what might make someone want to come here.
Then we talked about what they do if they don’t feel safe. We talked about finding a teacher or a parent or a friend to help you if you need it and we talked about how lucky we are that we feel safe most of the time. I then told them that there are countries where families don’t feel safe most of the time, either because of wars or because people are trying to force them to live their lives in a way they don’t want to. We also touched on the idea that people may not want to leave, but they might be forced to or there might not be enough houses or clean water or other basic necessities for them to survive.
We discussed the idea that if people don’t feel safe in their country, they try to come to another one, and that many people want to come to the United States because of all that we stand for. My 8-year-old totally understood that part, but I think it was a little more abstract for my younger one.
With my older son, I was able to tell him about my grandmother, who left Germany right before the Holocaust. We had an honest chat about what might have happened if the United States hadn’t taken in her and her family. I think that, for him, it was that personal connection that inspired his strong participation in the protest, as he stood with his sign, chanting and singing and connecting with those around him.
Finally, we talked about the Statue of Liberty, something both my kids are very interested in. We talked about Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus” and what it means to say, “Give me your tired, your poor…”
We said, just like we try to help each other when we are sad or scared, we want the United States to be a welcoming country to people who are suffering and feel unsafe. And finally, but far from least importantly, we talked about the idea that the Torah commands us to welcome the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. And then we were off to the protest, as we tried to put all that talk into action.