Whether it is an injustice of the past (such as slavery or the Holocaust) or today (Ferguson, Mo., or Flint, Mich.), difficult world realities come up even with very young children. Parents have to decide how to respond.
I’m a rabbi who has been teaching kids a long time, and I’m a parent. When Parenting Now! asked me to share my thoughts on parents talking to their kids about difficult world realities, past or present, I first thought of a personal story.
I once drew a swastika on a blank tablet of paper. I was 6 and I had no idea what a swastika was. I’d seen one, and I just drew it. My parents found it and asked if I realized what I had drawn. I hadn’t.
My parents explained that this symbol was used to hurt and kill many people, including a lot of Jews in particular. They told me not to draw any more swastikas because others might feel frightened or mistakenly think I agreed with the people who did these terrible things.
Of course, I wanted more information. Who were the swastika people? How many people had they killed? Why did they hate Jews? Were they still around now?
They answered truthfully with what today I recognize to have been age-appropriate information, withholding parts of the story that might, at age 6, overwhelm me with fear. They also reassured me we were safe now.
I didn’t give much thought to swastikas until I was 11 and my Hebrew School teachers began teaching about the Holocaust. In high school and college I learned about it in depth.
In the course of my work with kids at a synagogue, I’ve thought a lot about how to talk to children about traumatic group histories. Although my main experience has been related to the Holocaust, I think there are some basic strategies for talking with young children about the horrible things that affect our society.
While not a parenting expert, I take my perspective from being a rabbi, a Jewish educator and a parent. In discussing these challenging topics with younger children, I try to:
- Listen carefully and find out what the child is truly concerned with.
- Provide age-appropriate, limited, truthful information.
- Begin with a story the child already knows, then connect that story to the difficult subject at hand.
- Use tone and body language to give the child a sense that I’m not upset by their questions, I take them seriously, and I’m here for them.
- Inquire to find out where the child is receiving this information (or misinformation).
I also try to take into account my relationship and the child’s relationship to the societal power dynamics of the issue at hand. Sometimes doing that takes a lot of creativity. I don’t know that I’ve always done it well.
I do try to ask myself: Are we both part of the community that’s being mistreated? Are either of us part of a community that has power or privilege regarding this issue? Is this a current social injustice or tragedy that’s causing fear or harm in the child’s community?
If the conversation involves a child and me talking about an injustice in which we are part of a group that has power or privilege, one of my goals is then to help kids begin see what position they are, for this issue, in terms of that power or privilege.
Being there for our kids when these issues come up is one of the most valuable things we do. It’s a chance for us to listen well, to show our kids that we are there for them, to provide some moral education, and to model that we will face difficult subjects with them with honesty and with care for their safety and their emotional needs.
Maurice Harris is a rabbi and author who has lived with his family in Eugene since 2003. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization offering parenting groups and workshops so that all children are raised by nurturing, skilled parents. Contact Parenting Now! at parentingnow.org, on social media or at 541-484-5316.