As we have just completed Yom Hashoah and move toward Yom Hazikaron, we are once again confronted by many tough questions. Watching videos and listening to difficult stories of survivors will inevitably evoke feelings of sadness, anger, shock, and disappointment. Even after many years of commemorating Yom Hashoah and studying the history of the rise of Hitler in Germany, it remains a struggle trying to understand how an entire society could have banded together to engage in such evil and heinous acts. If adults struggle with tough questions (and we all do struggle with them), then our children will definitely struggle with them as well.
One of the challenges that parents often confront relates to explaining difficult events to their children. Formal education of the holocaust may not begin until middle school or later but inevitably children hear things from the environment that may scare them or give them cause for concern. In this article, I wanted to role play how a parent may respond to his/her young child’s concern about overhearing a comment on the school playground about a bad man named Hitler.
Consider the example of 8-year-old David who overheard in school from his friend Yosef that there was a person named Hitler who killed a lot of Jews.
David: “Mommy, today in school when I was outside in recess, Yosef was talking about a man named Hitler who killed a lot of Jews.”
Mommy: “Wow, that must have really scared you. Did you hear anything else from Yosef?”
David: “Yes, he also said that his grandfather was in a bad camp with other Jews and that many people in his family died. Mommy, what was he talking about?”
Mommy: “Sounds like you heard a lot in school today. Yes, David, there was a place very far away from here, called Germany, where people didn’t care about other people’s feelings or about who they were. They thought that they were better than everybody else. Because of that, they made a group and did some really terrible things.”
David: “What kind of terrible things?”
Mommy: “David, some of these things are very hard to explain and even I have a hard time understanding them myself. But, I do want you to know that around you, there are people that love you, take care of you, and make sure that you are safe. There are your parents, teachers, coaches, policeman, firefighters, and other people who do their best to protect you and make you feel safe.
“I am so proud of you for being so brave and telling me all that you heard. If you hear anything else that makes you feel scared, please come to me and let me know right away!”
Let’s highlight a few things from the above role play:
(1) It is critical to consider the developmental milestone of a child and how much information is necessary to transmit to a child at each specific age. Parents must stop and think to remind themselves of this before formulating a response to this type of question. Also, for a young child, it is important to see if the child heard other things on the playground that may have scared him. In the above example, the mother validated how David must have felt but also probed a little deeper to see if there were other facts that David heard on the playground. Once she did this, the mother gave a full response.
(2) A brief explanation may be appropriate for an 8-year-old child but certainly nothing more than that! In the above example, the mother also highlighted a “faraway place” named Germany to reinforce the child’s sense of safety. Using the specific language of “not caring about other peoples’ feelings” and “being better than everyone else” are things that an 8-year-old child can relate to. Eight-year-old children are taught to care about other peoples’ feelings and not to feel better than everybody else. This can also reinforce the fact that what I heard on the playground is scary but really can’t happen where I live, because where I live, people are nice and respect each other.
(3) The mother praised the fact that her son came to her and made sure to mention that David should come to her should he hear anything else that makes him feel scared. This is a critical element in the process—making the parents and no other source of information the ultimate authority for dealing with discomforting information.
In the next article, we will discuss how parents can respond to “tough questions” posed to them by their adolescent children.
Rabbi Mark Staum, LCSW is an educator, therapist, and writer. He is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link. If you have any comments on this article, please email Mark, [email protected]
By Mark Staum, LCSW