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Talking to Kids About Pittsburgh

Age-appropriate but honest conversations, and even children’s books, can help you talk about what happened, and why. Here are some resources for parents.

Marjorie Ingall
November 01, 2018
Image courtesy Simon & Schuster
From 'Ocean Meets Sky' by Terry Fan and Eric Fan, published by Simon & Schuster, 2018.Image courtesy Simon & Schuster
Image courtesy Simon & Schuster
From 'Ocean Meets Sky' by Terry Fan and Eric Fan, published by Simon & Schuster, 2018.Image courtesy Simon & Schuster

We’re reeling right now. And we’re wondering: How much do our kids know? How do we discuss this past weekend’s terrorist attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life shul with them?

First of all, we shouldn’t assume they’re clueless. Even little kids can tell something’s up when adults are hushed, angry, or weepy. Grade schoolers may get the news from an older kid, overhear a conversation, or catch details on the radio in the car or in a news broadcast we’re watching while making dinner. We may think they’re not paying attention. They may not be. But often they are, which means we have an opportunity to educate and to soothe.

We can take our cues from the American Academy of Pediatrics online guide “Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis.” The APA writes: “To not talk about [a tragedy] makes the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible to even speak of.” Ask your kid if they’ve heard anyone talking about Pittsburgh or whether they’re aware of something bad that happened in a synagogue recently. Be mindful of your kid’s age, maturity, and level of existing knowledge; let them lead. You could say, “You might have noticed that I’ve been sad for the last few days; it’s because a man attacked a synagogue in another city. I’m upset for the people in that city and have been trying to figure out how to help.”

If your kid is older, more interested in the news, or more attuned to the emotional states of people around them, go deeper. If your kid likes facts or is attuned to politics, you can give more details of just what happened. But it’s also really important to reassure kids that you and others are working hard to keep them safe. Safety is why we have smoke detectors, crossing guards, and seat belts. They mostly work. Unfortunately, though, bad things—though rare—do happen in the world. Attacks like the one in Pittsburgh are very unlikely to affect us personally—human beings are much more likely to be hit by lightning than become the victim of a terrorist, and most of us don’t know anyone who’s been hit by lightning, right?

If your family’s shul or JCC has security measures in place, you can explain what they are and what they’re for. But again, don’t get ahead of what your kid wants to know. Be sure to ask, “Do you have questions?” And pay attention to what they ask. “Listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns,” the APA suggests.

Be very wary of TV and the radio. You are a better conduit for information than the media. Violent images and sounds are not helpful. I am a full-fledged grown-up and I am still haunted by the video of planes and falling people from 9/11. The littlest kids require only brief, simple info and reassurance. Older elementary to middle school kids can handle a discussion of anti-Semitism and safety plans. And middle to high school age kids can engage in nuanced conversations about gun control, the dangers of divisive rhetoric, and dog whistles like “Soros” and “globalist.”

If you haven’t broached the subject of anti-Semitism before … well, now might be a good time. PJ Library offers a good, simple explainer. “Research shows that one of the best ways that we can help prepare our children to cope with discrimination and intolerance is by being open about it,” the site notes. “When we show our children that these topics, though tough, are not taboo, we let them know that they can always come to us with questions or thoughts about life’s scary situations.” PJ suggests using the Hanukkah and Passover stories as ways to talk about being a minority group facing persecution and oppression from the majority. They suggest some fine books about Jewish leaders facing prejudice and striving to create a better world, among them Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 (which I wrote about here), I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (discussed here), and A Time to Be Brave.

But PJ doesn’t offer suggestions for telling your kids why some people don’t like Jews. And frankly, I don’t know either. But you might try the simplest approach, saying that sometimes people hate other people just because of their religion or skin color or who they love or what they wear. With older kids, again, you can talk in more depth: The origins of anti-Semitism; the pernicious idea that Jews killed Jesus; the stereotypes about Jews and money (often dating from the Middle Ages, when Jews were prevented from having many different professions and turned to moneylending because it was one of the few options open to them); the belief that Jews control the global media and international banks. Unfortunately, your kid may have already experienced anti-Semitism: A second-grade classmate in my daughter Josie’s public school said to her, “You’re Jewish? I thought you were normal!” Which, hey, is better than the kids in the public middle school years ago who threw pennies at me and my classmates as we walked by on our way to Jewish day school.

I would be wary of engaging in the oppression Olympics about which people in history have suffered the most. What is important is to note that discrimination, sadly, is a fact of life and an essential part of American history. Can your kid recall a time they saw bias against someone because of their race, religion, ethnic background, size, age, disability, gender, or sexual identity? Can you share some stories of incidents from family or local history (please consider in advance what you’ll say, so that you’ll keep things age-appropriate and not unmanageably terrifying) that show how prejudice and sinat chinam, baseless hatred, work?

Be alert to your own tendencies toward stereotyping and discrimination—look, we all have implicit biases—and be ready to talk about any harmful assumptions or statements your kid might make. No, kids aren’t too young to know better. We all should know better.

And it’s healthy to talk about how language and understanding evolve. My kids know about my struggle to strike the word “retarded” from my vocabulary; it was a word I used as a kid, and one I now know is not OK … but occasionally I slip. One of my kids went to a Jewish camp that did not treat the insult “fag” with the seriousness it was due. We’ve talked about the importance of using the names and terms people prefer; when I stumbled over the pronouns of a ticket seller at a museum, I tried to model a quick and good apology.

I’d argue that part of the Good Parent job description is raising kids who challenge racism and anti-Semitism. Teach your kid what to say if someone makes an offensive statement. A simple, “Excuse me?” might work. “Did you just say what I think you said?” is another option. My favorite is, “What an unkind thing to say”; In its formality, it tends to discomfit others. (We all want to be perceived as kind, whether or not we are.) I do not advocate saying “I’m Jewish” or “my uncle’s gay” or “my best friend’s family comes from Mexico.” You shouldn’t need a personal connection to call out prejudice when you see or hear it.

But to get back to how to deal with this crisis, this sorrow, this attack: The advice of experts when talking to kids about tragedy is always the same. Focus on the helpers. The people who run toward danger. The people who try to make life better. There is never a bad time to talk about tikkun olam, healing the world, but now is a very good time. What can we do? We can praise the helpers in our own communities. We can donate to HIAS, the wonderful refugee organization that helped many of our families come to America back in the day and now helps refugees from other dangerous places. The shooter in Pittsburgh was “triggered” by his hatred for HIAS, snarling on social media about its National Refugee Shabbat as justification for his actions. We can send cards to people affected by the shooting; we can write postcards supporting candidates who share our values; we can vote (take your kid to the polls!); we can help other people get to the polls; we can attend services to remember the victims and marches to show how important it is that there be no more victims. Our kids should know that we’re hurt and angry, but that we’re actually taking action. Feeling powerless is dispiriting; doing stuff is invigorating.

But you needn’t model perfection. The Child Development Institute, in a piece on talking to kids about death, notes that parents tend to freak when they don’t have all the answers. But it’s OK to say, “I just don’t know”! (And it’s way better than lying.) “Children respond to this honesty beautifully and feel connected in our openness towards them,” CDI says. “It helps them feel better about not knowing everything also. In discussing death, we may find different answers at different stages in our life or grieving process. Share with children your beliefs. … Allow them to be comforted in knowing your beliefs and allow them to choose their own.”

PJ Library notes that Jewish rituals surrounding grief fall into two categories: kavod ha’met, honoring the dead person, and kavod ha’chai, honoring the loved ones and survivors. By focusing on the shul-goers rather than on repeating the name of their murderer, we practice kavod ha’met, and by doing what we can to help Pittsburgh and prevent future hate crimes, we practice kavod ha’chai.

Finally, a note about death. Use the word. No euphemisms. Kids under 5 may not understand that death is permanent. (Josie, who was not quite 3 when her zayde died, kept saying she understood what dead was, but then kept asking to call him on the phone.) You can reassure kids that most people die of natural causes when they’re old. I’ve written about great recent children’s books about death, but this year has brought some beautiful, thoughtful new entries: The Funeral, a brightly colored and lively picture book by Matt James, respects kids’ perspectives (there’s a lot that the main character, Norma, doesn’t process, and that’s perfectly OK) and people’s varied experiences of grief. Ocean Meets Sky, by the Fan brothers, is allusive and mysterious and utterly lovely. On what would have been his grandfather’s birthday, a boy thinks about the stories Grandpa used to tell about a magical place where the ocean meets the sky. The boy decides to make a boat and go searching for that place. He falls asleep in the boat and wakes up surrounded by huge fish, airships, hot air balloons, submarines, giant golden fish … and his grandfather’s face reflected in the moon. He returns home to his mother’s call for dinner. It’s like Where the Wild Things Are without the anger. And with more melancholy.

Finally, an observation for both you and your children: BimBam’s lovely, kid-friendly videos about Jewish mourning rituals note that the Hebrew word for funeral is levaya, which means “accompany.” Death, in Judaism, is a communal act. We never leave the body alone; we shovel dirt at the funeral; we sit together at shiva. The same root word appears in melaveh malka: Accompanying the queen, the act of celebrating the end of Shabbat with food and camaraderie. Love and death, joy and grief are never far apart in our culture. It’s good for kids to know that.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.