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In Israel, Debating What to Tell Young Children

As sirens blare and security concerns mount, parents try to keep kids calm

Dana Kessler
July 10, 2014
Israelis take cover in an underground car park in the city of Tel Aviv, on July 10, 2014, during a rocket attack by Palestinian militants from the nearby Gaza Strip. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Israelis take cover in an underground car park in the city of Tel Aviv, on July 10, 2014, during a rocket attack by Palestinian militants from the nearby Gaza Strip. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most talked about topics across Israeli media right now is how parents should deal with—and discuss—the escalating conflict with Gaza with their young kids. Child psychologists are today’s A-listers, frequently appearing as guests on television news panels, where they repeat mantras like “when talking to the kids don’t call it a war, call it a dispute.”

After spewing the usual useless psycho-babble they are asked impossible questions to which they give impossible answers. Yesterday evening I saw a show where a psychologist was asked what a normal response from a child would be and what king of responses should cause worry. The answer was: “In this situation, any response is normal.”

While grown-ups discuss the issue on grown-up TV, the Children’s Channel broadcasts a special war time (sorry, dispute time) program called “Tnu ligdol be-sheket,” which means “Let us grow up in peace,” where kids can discuss the situation with the friendly and familiar hosts, and share their thoughts and personal experiences.

It’s not just TV. The internet is full of lists of tips for how to cope with your child’s stress during this scary situation. They tell you to keep calm and not panic (duh!), they tell you to talk to your kids about their fears, to keep the normal routine, rules, and domestic rituals as much as possible and do so even more rigorously than usual, and they offer ideas of fun creative things to do in the security room. I can’t help but wonder if origami actually has the power to keep my kid safe—and whether kids in Gaza are folding paper to make delicate little cranes and flowers right now. The only internet article worse than “how to keep your kids busy in the mamad” is “how to not gain weight in the mamad” (I kid you not).

But back to reality: For the past two days, each morning we face the difficult question of whether to send our son to his daycare center or not. Many parents around the country don’t even have the luxury of deciding, as many found out yesterday morning, at the last minute, while they were getting ready to go to work, that their daycare (or summer day-camp if the kids are older) was closed—all depending on the location, the facilities (if there is a security room or bomb shelter or not), and sometimes on the teacher’s own decision. So far, our daycare center in Tel Aviv is open and our son goes there, playing and napping in the internal room instead of the usual front room. Our lovely daycare teacher told the kids that the sirens they hear are like the Remembrance Day sirens, which they are already familiar with, but instead of standing in silence they should hurry to the internal room and sit in a circle to get a snack.

My son is a little over three years old. He doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s going on and luckily—or miraculously—he doesn’t ask. Some kids his age ask and some parents tell them they’re hearing firecrackers (I wonder what they do when the kid demands to see them).

Coping with the situation is obviously much more difficult if your kids are older and understand what’s going on. At my son’s age, as long as you treat life like a game, it will be enjoyed. And responding quickly to the sound of the siren and running outside to the stairwell is as good a game as any. I wish I could say that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, but sadly that isn’t true.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.