Wednesday, July 23, 2014

War: A Time for Parents and Educators to Listen

Minutes after coming out of the bomb shelter last week, I saw a father and his twin toddler daughters  finish a meal and quietly chat in a Tel Aviv restaurant.  On the streets of Jerusalem a mother told me that her 7 year old son was managing the incoming rockets just fine. "Can we do it again" (go in the shelter), he asked? "I want to hear the boom, like the video game."

How can parents, and educators speak to children about the violence going on now? Can we pretend it is just like a game? The answer is obvious. Yet with our own uncertainties Israel seems a topic easy to ignore.

 As a Jew, Israel is the place where our cousins and friends live. It is the place our ancient mothers and fathers lived. Regardless of politics, regardless of what we might think, the world does see us, as Jews, connected to Israel. I have to wonder if it is harder to talk to children about Israel, or sex? Not sure. We need to try and here are a few suggestions from experts. 

According to Berman, Deiner and Lantieri, Educators for Social Responsibility, the first thing to do is  listen.  Children as young as four or five are exposed to what's happening either from their own experience, from the media, or from the chatter of adults. Simply, ask a child,  "Have you heard news about what's happening in Israel?" 

When you hear their responses you can help them put things in order. A young child's mind tends to meld information into a jumbled scenario. For example, a few facts might end up "If missiles are hidden in schools in Gaza, then there are missiles in my school." Talking about what children are hearing or fearing, with a trusted adult doesn't stir, but rather calms. No matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them.

Young children-early elementary school--need to know parents and adults are there for them to provide protection. We have a Jewish vocabulary of Shema to help. We can exhibit sacred listening.  Our children need loving adults who are there to hear their questions, and feelings and the stories they are creating when making sense of events. Young children can know that God is listening. Shema says, you are not alone, all of Israel is listening too. 

According to Berman, Deiner and Lantieri older children, in middle elementary school and early middle school will be concerned when faced with violence with issues of fairness and care for others. Again, Judaism gives us a vocabulary to listen to, and engage our children. 

We can tell children that our work as Jews is to balance virtues, even sometimes when they are in conflict with one another. For example, we are obligated to care for others and  to care for self.

Care for others:
"It has been told to you, O Human, What is good, and God seeks of you: only to practice justice, To love compassion, and to walk humbly before your God." (Micha 6:8) 

 Take action care for self:
"When injury is likely, one should not rely on a miracle." (Kiddushin 39b)

Educators and parents can act as exemplars, sharing how they manage balancing the virtues of self care and care of others. Share what you do when these virtues are in conflict. Make your inner dialogue visible to them.  Children also need you to be  explorers. Explorers are adults who help children find their own views on what it means to care for self and to care for others. This is a conflict that we as individuals work to manage. This is also a challenge for countries and this is what Israel is struggling to do.

Educators and parents should be both exemplar, sharing their own story and explorer, helping children ask questions and search out their own answers.  (Wertheimer, Pomson, 2014) 

Adolescents have many of the same needs as younger children. They too need to share their emotions, be heard and be supported by caring peers and adults. Developmentally they will be drawn  to the ethical dilemmas that arise from the conflict.

Our job is not to give them the answer, not to shut their questions down, but to make accessible the rich resources of our tradition so they can grapple with the opinions they explore and express. They need rich content in their conversation. Facts trump newspaper headlines. Giving teens a chance to let their hands follow their hearts and move to action is also work that is in our power as parents and educators.

The times require us to do one thing with our children regardless of age, Engage. This is not, as the innocent child said, a game.  Our children, growing in a volatile world, need us not to shy away from the conversation. Let's put our arms around our children and bravely start the conversation.

Rich resources include:
JECC's "Responding to Crisis"

"Parents Talking to Children about Violence"