As the horrific and violent war between Israel and Hamas continues to unfold, parents and educators are facing the daunting task of navigating nuanced, delicate, and often painful conversations and questions from children about the geo-political and humanitarian crisis, which has deeply personal implications for many families.
Public officials, including district superintendents and university leaders in Massachusetts, have faced intense pressure and scrutiny to release statements that resoundingly condemn the atrocities and violence, while also expressing support for community members of all backgrounds, without taking any overtly political position. Others have been criticized for not publicly making statements to address the issue.
Here are some tips from experts on how to respond to tough questions and approach difficult conversations with children about the war:
Stay age appropriate
Experts said it is critical to keep the conversation age appropriate, and shield children from the horrifying and graphic images and videos of the violence that are circulating online and on television.
However, adults shouldn’t avoid the topic.
“We want to create a safe space to answer questions for our students and our children because they will have questions, and I think as educators and parents, it’s our job to clear up misconceptions,” said Kaylene Stevens, program director and clinical assistant professor for social studies education at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
For example, Stevens said some younger students might have concerns about their own safety and confusion about the location of the violence. It’s important to reassure them they are safe, but explain it is also a tragic situation happening in the world today.
You can explain to younger kids, “race, religion, gender, social class... able-bodied status, etc, have been used to hurt and separate people in the past, and we have to work really hard in the future to avoid that,” said Stevens.
Parents and educators should also center the discussion on empathy, rather than politics, experts said.
Claude Bruderlein, a lecturer at Harvard University’s school of public health, has spent his entire career managing humanitarian crises with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, including in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he lived for many years.
“The first, more sensitive step is really to take a stand that everybody has a right to life and dignity, regardless of their nationality, regardless of their religion, regardless of their gender and age,” Bruderlein said.
He suggested focusing the conversation on the impact of the crisis on the people most affected and our shared humanity, and to avoid categorizing people by race, nationality, or religion, which he said can be used to divide people.
“It’s very important for parents and students and teachers to promptly dissociate themselves from these categorizations, because they’re not linked to empathy, they are linked to a politicization of empathy,” said Bruderlein.
He said schools need to be a safe place for students to learn and become critical thinkers and are not the place for taking political positions. In all districts, but especially ones where the student body is diverse, schools must be a space of inclusion for students from all backgrounds, where kids can ask questions or seek comfort without fear or judgment, he said.
Do your homework
Though the recent Hamas militant attack in Israel and the Israeli military’s response in Gaza has thrust the conflict back into the global spotlight, the historical context of the region goes back more than seven decades, and experts said it is important for teachers to do at least some research to understand the basics of the conflict if students ask questions.
Derek Penslar, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recommends reading comprehensive, neutral summaries of the conflict published by reliable news outlets.
“It’s okay not to know because it’s probably too much to ask of a biology teacher to become an overnight expert on the Middle East conflict... a high school teacher has plenty of other things to do and they’re quite overburdened as it is,” Penslar said.
Sawan Jaber, a Palestinian education consultant and English Department Chair of a high school in Illinois, said it is also critical for teachers and parents to be wary of their own biases as they’re learning about the issue, and to not look at recent events in isolation.
“Before we have any kind of conversation, but particularly conversations that we know are nuanced and have been presented from the perspective of only one group of people, we need to make sure that we are doing the work to immerse ourselves and bring in voices that represent multiple views in the story,” Jaber said.
Stevens also points to resources like the Learning for Justice website from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provides teaching guides and resources for educators who are looking for more structured materials on how to lead classroom discussions.
Offer emotional support and resources
Offering access to emotional support and resources is also critical, especially for students who have personal connections to the violence and might be feeling traumatized, anxious, or upset, experts said.
“A lot of that is centered around listening; not so much talking, but listening,” said Penslar. “Asking the student how they’re feeling, asking the student why they’re feeling the way they are, asking the student if they feel they have sufficient support, and then turning the student to whatever resources school might provide.”