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Rabbi Manewith reflects on talking with our kids about tragedy

“Why is that lady on TV crying?” my son asks as he walks into the kitchen where I’m watching the news while cleaning up the breakfast dishes. “Her son died.” I answer in simple and straightforward terms hoping that the curiosity will be satisfied and the questions will stop there. Of course it isn’t and we go on to talk about why someone might want to attack a group of gay men and how they knew where to find so many victims at the same place and time. At least for today we haven’t delved below the surface of homophobia or mental illness or gun violence. My son is just finishing third grade. It is with profound sadness that I write that someday, perhaps soon, I’ll have to explain all of these things.

When I’m not at Emanuel, I write curriculum for the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago. A number of months ago we were writing lessons to help teachers in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald case. There was so much we wanted –perhaps needed- to address that it took us many months to complete. We knew we would finish long after the immediacy of the need which served as the impetus for our project. We also knew that, sad though it made us, teachers would need these resources once again.

So I write today to offer parents and anyone else with young children in their lives what little guidance I have to offer on how one might talk to children after horrific and tragic events. I learned at least some of what you see below from articles published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Fred Rogers Company

Hindsight, of course, is twenty-twenty so the first thing I suggest is something I didn’t do: turn off the television. Our twenty-four hour news cycle often gives us graphic pictures and detailed stories that are too complicated and traumatizing for young minds. Though children may hear of horrific events on the playground, turning off electronic media allows you to control the flow of information.

LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD. What information are they seeking? What fears are they sharing? Grown-ups have a tendency to share more information than is necessary, often serving to confuse or escalate a situation, when of course that it not their intent.

VALIDATE FEELINGS. Psychologist and author Sol Gordon wrote in When Living Hurts (I am paraphring) “When was the last time you told someone to stop worrying and they did?” Let children know that you can see why they might be sad, angry, fearful, etc.

OFFER COMFORT as well as techniques that a child might use to self-soothe. You might remind a child that you, and other adults in your child’s orbit, do everything in your power every day to keep them safe. You might remind them of the specifics of this, for example: there is a guard at your school, we have an alarm system at home, you know my cell phone number in case of an emergency, etc.

CREATE A SAFETY PLAN. Children are full of what-ifs. Talk with them and together devise plans – if you don’t have them already –for what they might do in frightening situations. Remind them that they already know what to do in certain emergencies as they’ve likely had fire and lock-down drills at their schools.

As you do all of this, BE HONEST. It’s painful as a parent to not have the ability to shield our children from every hurt and danger that exists in our broken world. It is difficult to walk the tightrope of reassuring a child while honestly answering the question: “Can this happen again?” We must answer as honestly as we can, each in our own way, so that our children trust us enough to keep asking.

MODEL WAYS TO COPE. As you know, our children learn more from what we do when we don’t mean to be teaching them than when we are trying to impart some wisdom. I’m afraid of flying. I managed this to a certain degree when, as a rabbinical student, I had to board two different nineteen-seaters twice each weekend to get to and from my student pulpit. Since I became a mother my old fear has resurfaced. My son loves to fly. I certainly don’t want my fear to dampen his joy. So when the plane starts to bounce around in the clouds I close my eyes and breathe deeply. Most of the time he ignores me and goes on looking out the window, but if it gets really bumpy, he does the same. Sometimes he holds my hand.

FIGURE OUT NEXT STEPS AS A FAMILY. While watching the news on Sunday morning, I felt mostly shock as the newscasters announced that the number of victims was far greater than originally reported. But numbness is a luxury. And doing something makes us feel a little less helpless. If your children are old enough, talk to them about the situation at hand and decide what you might do to be a positive force in the face of tragedy. If they are younger you might plan a few hours of being helpers, without the specifics of the situation which motivated your actions.

Having shared advice from the experts, I’d like to leave you with a few words from Anne Frank.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

We are certainly living in uncertain times. There is cause for concern. But there is also cause for great hope. Amidst the horror of the last few days there has also been great love – victims standing vigil waiting to hear news of near strangers they had helped to save, lines hours long at blood banks, a group of Muslims in New York two-hundred strong dedicating their Ramadan prayers to the victims of the shooting.

Perhaps our children will be that hope fulfilled. Perhaps their love and acceptance will bring peace and tranquility. Perhaps their generation won’t need to read articles like this.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon –May it be so.

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