Having children tends to increase our agony during moments of violence. I don’t know a parent who, after hearing about innocent people being hurt or killed, doesn’t instinctively reach for their kids and long to never let go.
This feeling is especially strong when the violence was directed toward a group with whom your family identifies. What if it was us?
My family consists of conservative Jews who regularly attend a conservative synagogue, just like the Jews who were recently killed in Pittsburgh. Hate-filled trolls have repeatedly threatened violence against me, and my Jewish children, on social media. It’s getting harder and harder to not think about the unthinkable.
But after the initial agony passes and we release our children from our immobilizing grips, their presence can actually help us work through these dark moments. Children have lots of questions and tend to be dogged pursuers of moral clarity. It’s rarely enough for them to learn that something happened. They want to understand why it happened and will keep why-why-why-ing their way through each and every piece of information provided to them.
At the end of this road sits the biggest question of them all, the question not about the act of violence but about what would make someone do something like that in the first place. How does one help them make sense of hate?
This is not an easy task. Intense hate is, for most of us, a foreign emotion, one we have never felt.
We must talk to our children about it anyway, explaining to them why someone hates them, where this hate comes from and how it has been dealt with in the past. While this conversation should absolutely include an acknowledgment of all the other groups who are the target of it, the processing of hate best happens through particulars – of a people, of a history, of a moment. In my family, this means viewing hate through a Jewish lens.
Begin with the past
The Jewish holiday cycle rests largely upon a series of ancient stories in which Jews were persecuted for being Jewish and then, ultimately, prevail. During Passover, we remember when we were slaves in Egypt. During Purim, we remember when our lives were threatened in ancient Persia. And so on.
“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat,” goes the old joke, a pithy summary of many Jewish holidays.
When children receive a Jewish education, it’s these stories, the Jewish communal memory, that take prominence. Is it strange to hear preschool children discuss the various ways in which one group of people can express their hatred of another? “Sometimes the Jews want to stay but aren’t allowed to, and sometimes the Jews want to leave and aren’t allowed to,” my son reflected at age 5. Yes, it’s strange. But there’s no Judaism without it.
So how does one take our history, in which hatred of the Jews is a leitmotif, and use it to help our children make sense of the present?
Shai Held, rabbi, Jewish theologia, and author of “The Heart of the Torah,” said stories of past persecution can help us understand how hate is, sadly, an inescapable part of the human experience.
“Any religious perspective on the world is going to emphasize that human nature is messy and complex and human beings are prone to hate,” he said. “There is oddly something helpful in knowing there is nothing new here. … It allows you some degree of sobriety.”
An incident of hate becomes a chance to discuss not just hate but the ways all of us contain within us the capacity for bad and good. No, we aren’t ever likely to find a way to stop that bad from occasionally growing into violent hate in some people. But, if we pay attention, we will notice that expressions of hate are often met by expressions of love and compassion.
In nearly every ancient story of hate, there are non-Jewish people who fight on Jews’ behalf. Last month, Jews saw non-Jews of all backgrounds join us in mourning and protest.
“I think it is always powerful to remind kids that if someone hates you, it doesn’t mean everyone hates you,” Held said.
A reckoning with hate, when rooted in Jewish history, is also a reckoning with resilience. Yes, lots and lots of people have hated us, incensed by the mere fact that we are not exactly like them. But they didn’t win. Held said parents could emphasize this against-the-odds survival of the Jews as a point of relief, if not pride, for children. “Thousands of years of antisemitism has instilled in us a deep persistence,” he said.
Connect it to childhood feelings
We all, old and young, have an instinct to trace hate back to its source. Where does it come from? And how does it take shape?
Children (and their parents) might get some insight into how hate develops by studying the behavior of their younger siblings, cousins or friends. Wariness of all people and things unfamiliar begins to unfold in the early years of life, explained Fred Zelinger, a New York-based psychologist who previously worked in schools.
“We are wired to be uncomfortable with things that are different,” he said. “Most kids outgrow it past age 3, but some environments can make it flourish.”
If a child is never exposed to other cultures or is told that these other cultures are bad, then that perfectly natural “stranger danger” can morph into something more menacing and permanent. This is particularly the case with people who have fragile self-esteems and seek to improve their standing by putting down or eliminating those who they see as a threat.
A good way to show children how all this works is by deliberately modeling the complete opposite, explained Laurie Zelinger, child psychologist and author of “Please Explain Terrorism to Me: A Story for Children.” Speak kindly about other groups of people; eat in their restaurants; play alongside them at playgrounds; learn about and, when possible, celebrate their holidays; invite them over your house. This is especially important during moments of communal fear, when calls for diversity in speech are not often met by diversity in action.
“When people feel scared, they have an instinct to insulate their children and keep them away from anything they are nervous about,” she said.
Focus on the opposite
There’s an underlying element of hate that will likely remain inscrutable to children – and everyone else. When we hit the edge of our ability to process it, the best, and really only, place to turn to is toward the goodness the majority of us contain within.
Out of all that was written in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, the one phrase that provided me with the most comfort was a declaration of the human capacity for good. “May we redouble our efforts towards kindness and love,” my rabbi wrote in an email, sent hours after the killings took place.
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“One of the things that is striking about Jewish theology is that Jews are supposed to learn compassion and empathy from two places. We learn it from God’s compassion, which is the positive model. And we learn it from our suffering in Egypt, which is the negative model. Whether you have a positive or negative experience, you are supposed to learn empathy,” Held explained.
Love is not, sadly, the only answer to hate. Vigilance, education, self-defense and self-care are all necessary, too. But it’s our unyielding belief in human goodness that makes it all worth it. I believe most children already feel this, but it is up to us to help them understand it.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.