Early Childhood Leader's Guide Parenting

Navigating Difficult Conversations with Our Youngest: A Perspective on Discussing the Conflict in Israel

“Should I address the devastating conflict in Israel at Tot Shabbat?”

Not directly. And here’s why.

As an educator deeply rooted in the Maria Montessori approach and a mother of three, I intimately understand the diversity in children’s emotional processing thresholds. My own children, ranging in age from 4 to 8, consistently surprise me with their varied cues and reactions. Conversations of this magnitude require a delicately tuned in approach, tailored to each child’s capacity to process.

The Importance of 1:1 Conversations

While it’s tempting to address such issues in group settings, it’s crucial to recognize that children, especially those in their early years, have widely varied emotional and cognitive responses. What may be a developmentally appropriate explanation for one child could be a trigger for crippling anxiety in another. This delicate balance is even more pronounced in early childhood learning environments. Each family should be making their choices about what level of exposure their children experience.

Thus, my strategy has always been to engage in these challenging conversations in a 1:1 setting. It allows for a more personalized, attuned approach, ensuring the child feels seen, heard, and supported.

Subtly Address in Group Settings

However, completely ignoring the topic might not always be feasible or desired, especially given the importance of the matter in our community. If you find yourself leading a group of children, there’s a subtle yet impactful way to acknowledge the situation. Seamlessly integrate a song of peace or a prayer for Israel into your program. I often lead Debbie Friedman’s ‘Oseh Shalom‘ or I use my own “Gonna’ Make Peace (Oseh Shalom)‘. I might make a vague intention- we pray for those in Israel who are hurting’ but since I don’t have the ability to be responsive to individual needs in a crowd, I am not doling out additional details. The adults present, fully aware of the broader context, will appreciate this gesture. Meanwhile, the children remain sheltered from the intricate details that might be overwhelming for them.

Recognize the Helpers

In the midst of difficult conversations on a variety of topics, I often lean on the wisdom of Mr. Fred Rogers. “Look for the helpers,” he’d say. And so, when we encounter an ambulance or a fire truck, I announce, “Help is on the way. I hope whoever needs it feels better soon.” This simple yet powerful message instills hope and resilience in young minds, ensuring they focus on the positives even in challenging situations.

Personal Processing 

Last night, I experienced a full range of emotions while watching the ‘Sing Unto God Musical Event in Solidarity with Israel‘. My kids were safely tucked into bed, affording me the space to tear up, talk to a family member, and do whatever else I needed to process. This private time allowed me to gather my emotions, making it more navigable to remain composed when approaching the discussion with my children. I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t express your own emotions in the presence of children- it is critical to be authentic while balancing their need to be attached to a secure adult who can think and feel at the same time. 

Check their understanding 

I asked my kids to tell me what they knew about Israel and I quickly assessed that they did not have a concept of Israel as a modern, political state. My 8 year old was able explain that it is a special place for Jewish people, my 6 year old knew that it had a desert climate, and my 4 year old enthusiastically told us it was a place with triangle shaped buildings (she meant pyramids). When prompted, they recalled that Moses led the people and that Hebrew is spoken and then they showed off their vocabulary. 

Explore and Celebrate Israel 

I decided to dedicate time this weekend to reading books, watching videos, and singing songs about peace and Israel, and I’ll plan to trickle out a few simple details like ‘there is a war happening in Israel’ as a part of the conversation. I’ll generously offer details of personal connection, novelty, and delight: we’ll watch ‘Paw Patrol’ in Hebrew, I’ll show them pictures of when I lived on a Kibbutz in my 20s, and we’ll make some Israeli cuisine (Trader Joe’s will help).  I’m honestly embarrassed at how little my own kiddos were able to offer about Israel, and nurturing their love for our country feels like one small but meaningful act of resistance.

Empowering Our Jewish Legacy

Now, more than ever, the task of fostering a strong Jewish identity in our children feels paramount. Reading stories from our rich heritage, engaging in creative community experiences, and embedding their interests with our traditions are just a few ways to instill pride and connection.

These are trying times, but with empathy, understanding, and community support, we can guide our youngest through the complexities of our world. Let’s shoulder this responsibility with grace and determination, always remembering our shared commitment to one another. 

The fact that you are wondering and researching these questions leads me to believe you’ve got this. You are an expert in the children’ you know, and you’ve got an intentional approach to supporting them- even if the conversation is very difficult, it can be very good.

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