Voices from the field
Talking To Children Amidst Difficult Times
As an educator and a parent, I know my task is not only to provide answers. I know that allowing children the opportunity to discover, question, challenge, and struggle is just as valuable, if not much more. But in times of crisis, in times where the news from Israel breaks my heart, I find it hard to remember that.
In these times, I find myself alternating between trying to shield them from the ugly reality outside and struggling not to explain it away with charts and maps and impassioned pleas. But I work on doing better.
I need to listen better. My children are not worried about the same things I am. They have fears that are sometimes simpler and sometimes far more complicated. Our conversations about the current situation in Israel are most successful when they begin with what my children want to know, not what I want to tell them.
I need to take their questions at face value and not make assumptions. When my son was four, he saw a picture in a children’s bible about the moment when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. He made us tell him the story. When we got to the part where Abraham raised the knife, about to sacrifice Isaac, he stopped us in horror. “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” he barged in. And we cringed, terrified to explain to him the unexplainable. “Where did he get the knife?” While my husband and I had expected him to ask the adult question, “How could Abraham kill his son?” Jonah’s four-year-old mind was focused on a much more concrete question.
Sometimes my job is to help them care about what’s going on halfway around the world. Not to scare them, but to help them connect to their cousins and relatives in Israel, as well as to the people they don’t know who make up the Jewish people, the ordinary people of the area.
I need to be a model for them of caring and action. Truthfully, sometimes my kids are not interested by what’s going on in Israel. They are at school or at camp, hanging out with their friends, unbothered by ominous events across the ocean, and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes my job is to help them care about what’s going on halfway around the world. By showing them that I care, they learn to care. They see me emailing friends and calling family members, and they learn it’s important. We talk about the organizations we send aid to, the way we lend our support. This goes far beyond any moment in time. Israel is always a part of our lives in America, and therefore it’s a part of theirs too.
I need to reassure them. My kids have Israeli aunts and uncles, first cousins, some of whom serve in the IDF, and friends whose families are all there. They want to make sure they are okay. Letting them talk to their cousins, write notes, and see that despite current challenges, Israelis make a concerted effort to go about their daily routines. Israel is not just a country on a map. It’s a land filled with people and stories, and often I turn to the stories of real people to help them understand why I’m concerned, why this is important to us as a family, as a community, and as the Jewish people.
I need to do a better job of controlling what they see and hear on the media. My children watch TV and go onto the computer on their own, and they have a lot of freedom in those areas. I’m not interested in hiding information from them, but much of what they may see, particularly online and on the news, is both disturbing and often not accurate. For that reason, I’ve asked them to allow me to be their curator for information they are looking for and to come to me when they have questions about the situation. Together we can find information they are curious about and I can show them how I look for stories on various news sources to get a fuller picture.
Some children may need more in all these areas. There have been a few wonderful articles and websites dedicated to talking with children about hard topics:
- Not a Time for Zealotry Or Shyness With Children by Cyd Weissman (eJewish Philanthropy)
- Talking to Children about Violence (National Association of School Psychologists)
- Responding to Crisis (Jewish Education Center of Cleveland)
Talking with Your Children
- Ask yourself: What do you want them to know about what is going on, and how do you want them to feel afterward? While it seems obvious, it’s something I often fail to remember before launching into a hard topic, along with how much information I’m comfortable sharing with them.
Start with what they want to know
- Whether or not you want them to know anything, chances are they’ve seen/ heard about what’s going on.
- Ask them what they’ve heard and correct anything that is erroneous.
- Ask if they have any questions, anything that they are wondering about. The things that scare us are often the things that our children’s brains protect them from discovering.
For Older Children: The Conflict and the Media
We live in a time where, sadly, chances are our children are learning far more about what’s going on in Israel from the news than from any other source.
In an ideal universe, we’d have the ability to monitor what they see and what they have access to. Ideally, we’d have the ability to curate the information we want them to see, being mindful of perspective and appropriateness.
There are images that are hard to forget, that our children shouldn’t have to see.
Whether it’s the stories they read, the pictures they see, or the video they are exposed to, the fact that it comes from a reputable news source makes it hard to contradict. For the most part, our children are told to trust the news: that our reporters and columnists are committed to journalistic integrity and unbiased storytelling. As adults, we know that this isn’t always the case.
We know that while sometimes the news provides an accurate portrait:
It is by definition incomplete. Ask your children: Which points of view are missing from it? Can you think about perspectives you aren’t seeing, opinions you aren’t hearing?
It can be biased. Whether because specific news providers have their own biases or just due to ignorance, there is often a majority of images and stories from one point of view – often the one that will score more viewers.
It can be incorrect due to the speed at which content is being reported.
- Ask your children: if you are responsible for the best up-to-date content, can you see how reports might come out before they’ve been verified?
It can be incorrect because reporters are not experts in every subject they cover.
- The following article from the summer of 2014 takes former host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to task for a piece he ran on the situation in Gaza. The article includes the video of Hillary Clinton using her vast experience in the State Department and in the Senate to point out the errors in his report. Despite its inaccuracies, Stewart’s original piece received 10,000 Facebook shares and was seen more than 700,000 times.
It is sometimes deliberately creating misinformation by using old photos, carefully cropped photos, and information journalists or other posters know to be wrong.
- While this is the least pleasant topic, it’s thankfully the easiest one to demonstrate. There have been a number of examples on social media of people using photographs from Syria or previous conflicts and saying they depict current victims.
- Urge your children to be careful about what they repost and question the pictures they see. This Times of Israel article from 2014 is a great discussion about the issue.
Encourage your children:
- To talk with you about what they see/hear.
- To look at a variety of sources if a segment seems one sided.
- To be savvy media consumers.
- To be careful in reposting articles/videos that may be proved to be inaccurate later.
However you choose to approach talking with your children and teens, if you’re committed to listening and keeping an open channel of communication, you will make an important impression. And while some conversations will go better than others, these moments are part of a long timeline of conversations, and there’ll always be bumps in the road. I find every time I admit I don’t know an answer, every time I commit to my children to do the best to find the answers they’re looking for, they come back with more questions.