Friday, April 21, 2017

Answering Children's Hard Questions

Given the recent spate of threats and attacks against Jewish institutions, it’s no surprise that we adults are a little on edge. Children often sense our anxiety and unease, even if they don’t know exactly why we are nervous and worried.

I think it’s important to keep that in mind when we wonder how to explain to our children what’s going on. You’re likely to be presented with two scenarios: one in which your child asks you a direct question, and one in which you feel compelled to prepare them for something terrible and scary that may happen. If you’d prefer to shelter your children for as long as possible, which is certainly an understandable and legitimate position, keep in mind that the former is not in your control. Depending on your car radio station preferences and your conversations around the dinner table, or the radio station preferences and dinner conversationsof their friends, your children may already know more than you think they do. But knowing isn’t the same as understanding.

Scenario One: Likely at the most inopportune time, your child asks, “What’s a bomb threat?” or, “Why did somebody spray paint the building?” or “Why do people hate the Jews?” No matter the question, I think it’s always best to follow up with a general question like, “Hmm. What do you mean?” or, “What do you think?” or, “Why do you ask?” These are not cop out questions. They are meant to gather more information and to try to understand what our kids are really asking us. Our gut reaction may be to take a deep breath and explain thousands of years of anti-Semitism, but it’s unlikely that that’s the kind of response your child is looking for. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that your child is just looking for you to reassure them and make them feel safe. The more general your initial response, the more you let your child guide the conversation. They will tell you what information they need from you; you just have to listen.

Scenario Two: You want to prepare your child for what you perceive to be inevitable. This one is much trickier – and there’s no right answer. It all depends on your child’s age (chronological and social-emotional) and your family’s values. I had warned my 14 ½ year old son about the likelihood of a bomb threat a week before his school received one, and I’m glad that I did. He texted me while waiting for the police to finish their sweep, saying, “I told everyone what you told me [about bomb threats usually being hoaxes just meant to scare us], and I got a few people to calm down.” Preschool age children, though, probably don’t need the same kind of mental preparation. If anything, it would likely create a problem for them to worry about. But elementary age children? That’s the toughest call. In the end, you know your kid best.

Finally, back to the original point. Whenever we’re talking with our children about anything hard or worrying or scary, it’s less what we say and it’s more how we say it. Most likely, they’ve heard something that confused or worried them, and now they’re looking to us to know how to feel about it. If we project calm and confidence, our children will trust our words, and they will follow our lead and be calm and confident themselves. If we get too emotional when answering them, or worse, avoid their questions, our children are more likely to be confused and afraid. It’s never harder being a parent than when we have to teach our children about something that makes us angry or afraid or uncomfortable. But we have to listen to our children and reassure them that they can always talk to us about anything. We want them to trust us and know that we will always do our best to keep them safe.

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