Talking to Our Children About Recent Events

When we returned to school from the Shavuot holiday, protests for racial justice were taking place throughout the country. On Sunday evening, Schechter Manhattan Head of School, Benjamin Mann, shared the thoughts below with the Schechter Manhattan parents and faculty.

“Abba, I just don’t understand.”  My son, a college student, expressed frustration, bewilderment, and indignation after viewing the video of George Floyd’s last moments of life, as he pleaded with the Minneapolis police officers who held him down.  “Why?” he asked me.  Like many parents, I find myself struggling to offer my children any meaningful explanation.

As an educator, and parent, who believes that my students and children learn best when they come to their own conclusions, I asked them what they think about all of this.  How do they react to the images, news stories, and first hand accounts filling their social media feeds?  What thoughts, questions, and feelings does this raise for them?  What sort of society do they hope to build and what roles do they imagine having in making it so?

They shared their outrage and talked through ethical questions that the troubling events raise for them.  Don’t all people, by virtue of being created in God’s holy image, deserve to be treated with compassion and respect?  Why is it that throughout our country, time and again, people of color are not regarded with that basic care?   When unjust harm is done to someone, and accountability is withheld again and again, isn’t it natural to feel anger?  What can we do to make a difference in the face of unconscious bias, generations of racial discord, and systemic racism?

We talked more, as they reflected on the images of protesters and police clashing.  What sort of policing does society need?  Don’t we owe gratitude to the brave men and women of the police who put themselves at risk to protect us?  How would our relationship with the police be different if we weren’t White?

Opening up this dialogue with my children afforded me an opportunity to both listen carefully to how they are processing complex and painful realities, and to share with them core values that I hope they will consider as they find their own understandings.  I shared that in Jewish tradition God balances two opposing attributes that sustain the world, מדת הדין, the attribute of just judgement, and מדת הרחמים, the attribute of merciful compassion.  We ask God to sustain both of these qualities, holding all of us accountable for our actions and also caring for us in times of need.  I told my children that in the face of the really, really hard questions they asked, I think we can aspire to try to follow God’s example and approach all human beings with a balance of both judgement and compassion.

This week, Schechter Manhattan students will engage in thinking and conversation about their reactions to the events of the last few days.  In developmentally appropriate ways, students in grades 3-8 will share what they know about the recent events, explore some primary sources, and be encouraged to express their thoughts, questions and feelings.  In grades K-2 teachers are ready to respond to their students’ questions should they come up.  Teachers will also take the opportunity to reinforce a sense of safety and security as part of our caring community.

I expect that many students are also talking to their parents about these difficult topics.  Click here for some guidance from the ADL and psychologists with expertise in talking about race about how parents can open up these conversations in constructive ways.

While we talk to our children, hear their thoughts and share our values, we also pray for better times ahead.  May we soon see a time when all people are treated with the caring and respect they deserve.