Parenting is never easy. Explaining the complexities of war, statehood, regional history, religion, terrorism and morality, all while cooking dinner, packing lunches, checking homework, sorting laundry and managing any semblance of professional and personal harmony can generate some fatigue.
With the war in Israel continuing to capture news feeds and global attention, therapists and educators are encouraging parents to treat this period as a teachable moment.
“We used to say, ‘Wait until your kids come to you with questions and then pick up on where they are,’ but I think because the news is so constant — and in an effort to keep up with social media — even if your children are young, it’s better to put it on the table and say, ‘What are you hearing about what’s going on in Israel,’” Dr. Mindy Hutchinson, a Mt. Lebanon-based child and adult psychiatrist, told the Chronicle.
Beginning with an open-ended question allows adults to share that they, too, are upset, worried, angry and confused, she said. “It’s a chance to model for kids that it’s OK to have feelings.”
Starting with a gentle inquiry avoids a rush to judgment, Kelly Moore, a psychotherapist at JFCS, said.
“A lot of us parents and adults have been saying to people, ‘Don’t be on the internet. Don’t be on social media.’ And that’s not really a reality for teens and kids,” she said. “That’s where they spend quite a bit of time.”
Realistically, one month into the war, kids “already know quite a lot,” Moore said.
Either through formal conversation in school, dialoguing with friends or reading and sharing posts online, children have seen and heard much about the conflict.
Young people have access to information, but they don’t always appreciate distance, Hutchinson said.
When parents talk to children, it’s all right to say, “Things are very upsetting, but what’s happening is very far away from where we are,” Hutchinson said.
Reminding kids that they are safe and that “the terrorists are not going to be pounding your door open tonight,” are essential parts of healthy conversation, as is identifying that “there are some bad guys out there.”
Intergenerational conversation doesn’t have to omit that “there are terrorists who are hurting a lot of people,” she continued. What’s critical, however, in a discussion about the war in Israel — and especially about bad actors — is language.
“You can use the word ‘Hamas’ but be careful not to say, ‘Palestinians’ or even ‘Arabs’ in a way that reinforces stereotypes or creates hate,” Hutchinson said.
Practicing judicious rhetoric requires more than effective word choices, Moore said.
“Be mindful of your own conversations around kids. Even if you don’t think that they can hear you — and that they might be two rooms over — they hear everything,” she said.
Likewise, parents should monitor their reactions and moods, according to Moore.
“If you’re on your phone, or reading an article, and you’re gasping or having facial reactions, kids are sponges and they’re picking that up,” she said.
This doesn’t mean parents must be automatons.
“If you forget, go ahead and address that with a kid,” Moore said. “Say, ‘Hey, I noticed you are in the room and you might have seen me react like this.’”
Creating space for conversation can lead to unanswerable questions, but that’s OK. An alternative — where avoidance is adopted — isn’t necessarily ideal, Moore explained.
For years, the psychotherapist has worked with local children processing the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
“I hear from kids who are now young adults saying, ‘Nobody really explained to me what a mass shooting was or what was actually happening,’” Moore said. By eschewing the discussion “it left a lot of kids with confusion and worry about not really knowing.”
Parents should recognize that “kids are in this and they’re picking it up from everywhere they go. It’s in the back of their mind. So maybe make it a habit to check in every few days with,
‘Hey, what are your thoughts?’” The response might be, “‘Nothing.’ It might be, ‘Oh, stop asking me,’ but at least it’s giving them the option to ask those questions so five years later they’re not finally figuring it out,” she said.
While parents navigate complexities at home, teachers face similar dilemmas in school.
Kate Lukaszewicz, education programs director at Classrooms Without Borders, said that she and fellow staffers at the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit recently developed a curriculum to help educators in their discussions about the conflict.
Titled, “How does a State Fight a Moral War,” the 40-page document, 20-slide PowerPoint and 14-minute video addresses the “devastating consequences” of Oct. 7.
Since Hamas attacked Israel last month, there’s been “tremendous suffering, not only upon innocent citizens of both Israel and Gaza but also on the human spirit,” Lukaszewicz said.
Educators have a responsibility to make clear that Hamas’ actions “cannot be conflated with the entire Gazan or Palestinian populations.”
Underscoring this distinction is one of the curriculum’s aims, but there’s another takeaway.
The “ethical dilemmas” raised in recent weeks are nothing new, she explained: “They reflect age-old struggles for justice, peace and understanding, requiring actors to consider the heavy tolls and mighty benefits of any particular course of action.”
Lukaszewicz said the educational materials, which include “a rubric, learning standards and norms for civil discourse,” are being piloted by three area schools. And though “the question of mitigating human suffering during war is an evergreen,” there’s an immediate opportunity to positively impact children.
The last month has given teachers and parents a chance to “open minds and hearts,” she said.
By approaching the war’s complexities with wisdom, empathy and facts, everyone can “contribute to a more informed, compassionate and harmonious future.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.