How To Talk To Kids About Pittsburgh

For those of us with children, the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat dealt a double-blow, forcing us to confront not only our own pain, fear, and disorientation, but the emotional responses, spoken and unspoken, of our children. Attempting to provide them comfort and hope, while we ourselves are heartbroken that this is the world in which they are growing up, can cause us to worry that we are being disingenuous and potentially hurting our children through our lack of honesty with them. Furthermore, how are we to help our children feel safe and secure when we ourselves are experiencing our own visceral reactions when their questions are the same as our questions and we don’t have answers?

Looking for resources for parents in our community, I found nothing that addressed the particular complexity of this situation. One article I found from the Child Mind Institute seemed on the right track until it suggested that bringing your kids to church or synagogue would be helpful. I cried when I read that suggestion, because that is precisely the what makes this different from other acts of terrorism in our recent history: it took place in a synagogue, as the community was gathered in prayer: the very time and place that our children have come to know as a safe space, a sacred space, a place unlike any other in their lives – which is now the very place they fear to enter. So I’ve decided to share my own thinking about ways we can help our children process this and feel safe in shul, in hopes that it might be helpful to others.

It’s okay to not have answers to every question and it’s okay for our children to see that we are upset and hurting. That is life. And they will see that we find our way through that pain and hurt, seek comfort in community and find strength in our resolve to make the world a better place – all of which is also instructive for them.

Nonetheless, our children do look to us for a sense of stability and help to make meaning of the world in which we live. Much of the advice I have found so far focuses on explaining things calmly, masking anxiety and conveying a sense of safety and security through outward expressions of calm, but how are we to do this authentically when we feel so insecure and scared ourselves?

It helps most, I think, to first consider these concerns within ourselves – to address the questions that gnaw at us as much as they do our children. When our children wonder if they are safe at shul, we might first consider what we ourselves really think about that question. Those who are regular shul-goers will most likely attend shul again next Shabbat and those whose children attend religious school or Hebrew school will likely already have spent time in the synagogue this week. Consider carefully the reasons behind these decisions. What do our rational minds have to say to the part of us that is scared beyond our wits? You might make the comparison in your mind to flying in an airplane, which is much less risky than driving in a car, yet many more people experience fear of flying. Our rational minds can help us by getting us out of the place of visceral reaction and helping remind us of the logic behind our decisions. What do we know about the statistical likelihood of something like this occurring in our own synagogue? While there are no guarantees of safety, the likelihood of something happening is quite small.

We do not need to share this whole thought process with our children, but it can help to clarify how we ourselves respond to fear so that when our children ask if they are safe, we can answer them without feeling disingenuous. Without feeling the need to make guarantees, which we cannot do, we can reassure them. You might say something like: “It is very unlikely that something like this will happen in our shul/synagogue/temple.” “I wouldn’t bring you somewhere I feel is unsafe.” “It is up to the adults to keep you safe” (without necessarily going into detail about security measures). For more detail on talking with your child, you may want to visit the website of The Child Mind Institute (their suggestion to attend a place of worship notwithstanding). They also have an age-by-age guide, which may be especially helpful.

Above and beyond the specifics of feeling safe in the synagogue we, as well as our children, struggle with the larger questions of trust in humanity, with holding onto the sense that the world is not falling apart, and with the need for a vision of hope for the future. How are we supposed to promote such a view of the world, when we ourselves are having difficulty seeing it? What I come back to over and over again is this text from the Talmud:

Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: ‘And all your children [banayich] shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children.’ (Isa. 54:13) Do not read your children [banayich], but your builders [bonayich].” -Talmud Berakhot 64a

Peace is not something we inherit, but something we build, and it is not up to our children to do someday, it is up to us, the adults, to do right now. Many have been quoting Mr. Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers,” and I think we can encourage our kids to do that, but at this moment, I would suggest that those of us who have responsibility for the world in which they are living and growing up heed the Talmud’s advice, taking care to not put the weight of the world on our children and focusing instead on what we are building for them.

Let’s continue to be builders, constructing for ourselves and for our children, a vision of the world and a way of being in the world that is filled with justice, love, and peace.