How to Talk to Kids About Antisemitism, According to Experts

how to talk to kids about antisemitism
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With antisemitism on the rise in recent years, as demonstrated by the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, Charlottesville mobs, Tree of Life synagogue shooting, harassment of Jewish college students, and yes, Kanye West—it’s clear all parents should talk to their children regularly and deliberately about the issue. However, like conversations about racism and sexism, it can be challenging to know where to start.

Here, we’re sharing some central, expert-backed tips and guidelines to navigate conversations about antisemitism with your kids.

 

Introduce concepts of fairness, kindness, and tolerance to children early on

According to Dr. Anjali Gowda Ferguson, Ph.D., LCP, a culturally-responsive psychologist who specializes in social equity and racial trauma, it is never too early to have conversations about empathy and kindness with children. This sets the groundwork for more complex discussions later on around discrimination, bias, racism, sexism, and more.

“We think as adults that we are protecting our children by not discussing these issues,” she explained. “The opposite is actually true—by shying away, we engage in avoidance, which just perpetuates harm to oppressed groups. This also leads to negative implicit biases that can be formed about people that are different from us. The fact is, children notice differences and are aware of these issues much earlier than we adults are ready to have these conversations.”

Once children reach preschool, they begin to recognize and observe differences in people around them; they’re old enough to grasp the idea that some behavior, like bullying, is not OK. Most behavior around this age is also focused on emotional regulation and identification, which supports their journey in accepting others as well as themselves. 

“When kids can start to internalize the feelings of others, they are able to accept the consequences of their actions and move towards acceptance with ease,” said Annie Warshaw, co-founder of Youth Alliance Yoga & Mission Propelle and professor of Gender Studies at Roosevelt University. “This might sound like, ‘You just called Abbey a stupid poo poo butt. If Abbey were to call you that name, how would you feel?’ Most kids will answer ‘sad.’ Validate and confirm that’s how Abbey is feeling because of the actions of your child.”

Dr. Tamara Soles, a psychologist and parenting coach based in Montreal, highly recommends parents first start with empathy toward their children, as it often creates a ripple effect. “The more that parents are able to validate and meet their child’s feelings, even the big, messy, intense ones with compassion, the more children will show empathy and acceptance of others,” she said. “Rather than shutting down feelings with phrases like, ‘that’s enough!’ allow space for all feelings, coach with empathy and tools for self-regulation to help children feel seen and cared for, which in turn allows them to do the same for others.”

 

mother and child talking

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Be honest, but choose a level of detail that’s age-appropriate and aligned with your family priorities

We’ve all been there—the moment when your curious kid randomly asks about death or how babies are made—and most experts agree more challenging topics, such as discrimination, aren’t any easier to navigate. However, honesty and preparedness is key, whether you’re talking to toddlers or teenagers.

“As parents, we instinctively want to protect our kids from the darker sides of humanity—and antisemitism falls into that category,” said Deborah Farmer Kris, an author, education journalist, and parent educator. “But remember, if we don’t have these clarifying conversations with our kids, particularly around challenging topics in the news, they will fill in the gaps with chatter from their peers and with their own imagination. Our job is to provide accurate, age-appropriate information in a calm way—while reassuring them that they are safe and loved.”

 

As parents, we instinctively want to protect our kids from the darker sides of humanity… But if we don’t have these clarifying conversations with our kids… they will fill in the gaps with chatter from their peers and with their own imagination.

 

Kris recommends having “micro-conversations” from a young age, which may increase in complexity as children get older. Another helpful approach, especially if your kid brings up something they heard at school or saw on the news, is to respond with questions before diving into any answers.

“Ask your child to tell you what they know,” said Sari Beth Goodman, M.A., a certified parent educator and coach with over 30 years of experience. “This is a way to figure out the child’s starting point and tells you where and how much information to give. A detailed history lesson or a detailed description of the latest gruesome incident may be beyond the child’s comprehension and be more confusing and upsetting. Once you have a starting point, answer with one or two sentences and then pause. Let the answer sink in. You may be able to stop there or you may add more depending on the child’s reaction or follow-up questions.

Dr. Ferguson suggests giving kids space to share and express their feelings without judgment. “Ask them what they heard, how they feel about a headline, what they think it means. If you notice them relaying misinformation, remain factual and correct the information presented. Offer to look up data or research together to learn about historic implications collectively as a family.”

With antisemitism specifically, remember that your role as a parent isn’t to necessarily deliver a presentation about the history of Jewish people, said Warsaw. You can decide what is or isn’t vital based on your family values or history.

“Kids may be more familiar with the terms racism or sexism, so you can use concepts to help explain antisemitism,” said Kris. “For example, you could say, ‘You know that racism is when people are treated badly because of the color of their skin? Antisemitism is treating someone badly because they are Jewish—that means they are part of a beautiful religion called Judaism. Racism and antisemitism are both absolutely wrong. It’s never OK to call people names or mistreat them because of what they look like, what they believe, what language they speak, or where they come from. Our job is to treat everyone with respect and kindness.’”

For Warsaw and other Jewish parents, that may look different. “One day, while driving by the local Holocaust museum, my kids inquired as to what the building was,” Warsaw shared. “I answered with honesty—although it killed me to tell them that Jews were killed by the millions. I connected the inquiry to their previous knowledge of Jewish persecution and asked them what they thought of it. I was also able to connect them to the event in real life by explaining their great grandfather is a survivor. I was so worried that I gave my kids anxiety complexes because of the difficulty of the topic at such a young age, but as the days went on, new questions came up from both of them and making connections to their lived experience allowed for a robust conversation that takes the pressure off to be ‘right.’”

 

Remember: not talking about discrimination is a privilege

“When you have little kids, the idea of shattering their naivety can be truly devastating,” said Warsaw. “We want our kids to live in their happy little bubble where they think unicorns are real and Spiderman may save us all, but this bubble only exists for those who are privileged and not part of a marginalized community.”

 

We want our kids to live in their happy little bubble… but this bubble only exists for those who are privileged and not part of a marginalized community.

 

Other Jewish parents know this firsthand. For Sydney and Brit Sharon, who run the account The Sharon Moms on Instagram, even though their two children attend a Jewish preschool and their family lives in a predominantly liberal community, they know it’s a bit of a “bubble.” Marti Kerner, a Jewish educator and parenting blogger, also notes that the concept of being singled out for being Jewish is something Jewish kids often experience fairly young—such as “elementary school kids told by classmates that they’re going to hell or teased because Santa doesn’t go to their house.”

“Parents often struggle with issues like racism and antisemitism because they are complex and uncomfortable to talk about,” said Dr. Soles. “None of us wants to tell a child that some people are attacked or hurt simply for who they are, what they believe, or who they love. Parents may want to preserve a child’s innocence and protect them from the knowledge that very bad things can happen in this world. Many parents don’t have that privilege, as these issues may already be ever-present in their lives. It is important that all children be taught about racism and discrimination so they feel empowered to make change.”

 

mom and son

Source: cottonbro | Pexels

 

Normalize learning about and celebrating different faith backgrounds and cultures

If you’re unsure where to start, explore books, television episodes, and educational resources that encourage acts of kindness and celebrate diversity as a baseline for any child’s age. Once kids reach junior high and high school, use global dates like International Holocaust Remembrance Day to emphasize the value of learning from history and fighting for justice. You can also teach your children about key holidays and traditions within the Jewish faith, such as Hanukkah and Passover.

“It is so important to teach our kids that every person and every family is different,” said Kerner. “Teaching kids that it is totally normal and valid for other families to celebrate different holidays than they do or have a different family structure will set them up to understand that we all experience the world in different ways.”

You don’t need to have special, sit-down sessions, either—you can use real-life moments or opportunities as entry points into these conversations, too. For instance, if you’re not Jewish, and you’re preparing for the holiday season, you can introduce Hanukkah and invite your kids to learn more alongside you or identify what’s unique and special about it. For Jewish parents, adds Warsaw, these conversations may also warrant a little more nuance, as most holidays include overarching themes of persecution and resiliency and daily activities might create impromptu discussions.

“While walking my four-year-old into his Jewish preschool, he asked me why there was always a cop car parked outside the door,” said Warsaw. “I approached him with honesty and asked him about the role of cops in our community. He gave his answer, which allowed me to explain the need for additional security because some people do not like Jewish people because we are different. I then connected it to a Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson story we had in our library and read consistently. He was able to process this information because the idea of intolerance wasn’t new to him. A vocabulary and awareness had been built through an array of books that tackle difficult issues, which gave my kids the language to work through the real life consequences of intolerance.”


Tell kids what to do if they witness antisemitism remarks or actions

Dr. Soles recommends taking conversations a step further to ensure children know what to say and do if they are confronted by discrimination, which may be overt or in the form of microaggressions throughout media and within real-life interactions.

“Children and teens feel safer and better able to manage difficult situations when they have a clear plan in place such as what to say and whom to tell,” she said. “When discussing antisemitism for instance, you might say to a child, ‘If someone ever tries to be hurtful to you because you’re Jewish, it is very important that you tell me and tell an adult you trust at school like your teacher. We will do all that we can to be sure you feel safe. It is never okay for someone to be hurt or bullied.’”

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