This is a special guest post by Sivan Zakai, Ph.D.
This post includes real children’s questions about very intense violence. Parents may want to read this on their own before discussing with kids.
During these difficult times, even very little children have very big questions about the horrors of October 7, the Israel-Gaza war, and what it means to be Jewish in such a dark moment. The following questions—all voiced by Jewish children (ages 5-9) in the last several weeks—are just a small sample of the depth of understanding and pain that many young Jewish children are carrying in this moment:
“Why are there always wars in Israel and never wars in [our city]?”
“Can adults get kidnapped?”
“I heard that they cut off people’s heads. Is that true?”
“What happens to the kids whose parents are dead?”
“How many people in the world hate us?”
“Is it safe to be Jewish?”
These questions, and others like them, are enough to make any adult who cares for a Jewish child sick at heart. And, if the initial emotional gut-punch were not enough, discerning adults will soon realize that it’s actually not so clear what, exactly, children are asking of us when they voice aloud these painful questions. Each of these questions might indicate a child’s desire for reassurance and/or a child’s request for information and/or a child’s desire to make sense of why bad things happen and/or a child’s attempt to sort through what it means to be a Jew in the world today.
How, then, ought parents, guardians, grandparents, and others respond to children’s questions? As a social scientist who studies Jewish children’s ideas and beliefs about Israel, and as a mother, I’ve studied children’s big and difficult questions during every Israel-Gaza war since 2012. Here’s a 3-step process I’ve learned about how to approach children’s big questions and why listening to children’s questions is often more important than giving children specific answers to those questions:
Step 1: Eye on the Goal
The goal of conversations with children about this moment is to engage children in honest dialogue so that they have an emotional safe-base. Children need to be able to ask questions, process how they feel, and know that they have adults they can trust to help them make sense of the world even—or perhaps especially—when that world feels so broken. Being a child’s trusted adult means tempering our own desires to reassure children that everything is okay when they so clearly know it is not. But being honest with children doesn’t mean that we have to give them troubling or gruesome details about current events that they’re not asking to hear. Figuring out how to hold this delicate balance—being an honest conversation partner without providing children more information than they’re asking for—is why adults need to commit to listening before they jump to answering children’s questions.
Step 2: Tell Me More
Given that a child might be asking for any one of a number of things from us as their trusted adults—information, reassurance, moral guidance, and more—we can only figure out what to say if we use three magic words: tell me more. We might say something like: “Wow, it sounds like you’ve been having some pretty big thoughts and feelings as you’re thinking about the world [or what it means to be Jewish]. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking and feeling?” Or we might say something like: “What a very difficult question you’re asking me. Thank you so much for trusting me with this beautiful question. Can you tell me more about what you’re wondering about?” No matter what words we use, an invitation to “tell me more” does two things: it affirms that the child has questions and ideas that are of value, and it helps the adult better understand what kind of conversation the child is requesting.
Step 3: Here With You
No matter what our children appear to be asking, our answers ought to communicate the same sentiment: whatever is happening in the world, and whatever is happening in your own heart and mind, I am here with you. You are not alone.
When our children are asking for information, we can answer as truthfully and simply as possible, and when we don’t know the answer, we can let our children know that we’ll circle back at a later time. “I am here with you in your desire to understand more,” we can explain, “and I’ll be your trusted source of information.” When our children are asking for sense-making around questions of good and evil, we can let them know that we’re also wondering about these questions. “I’m here with you in your desire to figure out how to live in the world even when bad things happen,” we can say, “and I’ll be your thought partner on this journey.” When our children are looking for reassurance for their own safety or the safety of others, we can remind them of all the ways that adults in our communities are working to keep them safe. “I’m here with you in your desire to live in safety and free of fear,” we can state, “and I’ll be your guide in making responsible decisions in an uncertain world.”
Our children should not have to hold the weight of their big and painful questions alone. We—their parents, guardians, grandparents, and caretakers—must let them know that no matter how little they are, no matter how big their feelings may be, and no matter how troubling their questions, we are right there beside them. We may not be able to fix everything that is broken in the world, but we can certainly hold hands and face it together.
About the Author:
Sivan Zakai is the Sara S. Lee Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the author of My Second-Favorite Country: How American Jewish Children Think about Israel.
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