I've been taking my children to political rallies, receptions, and house parties since they were babies. Many Iowa Democrats have claimed not to recognize me without a small child riding on my front, hip or back.
At the same time, I've avoided exposing my kids to political scenes likely to turn confrontational, such as anti-war demonstrations. An article I read years ago in Mothering magazine persuasively argued that because young children cannot understand abstract political concepts, they are likely to be disturbed by the anger they encounter at a protest rally. (Sorry, no link--they don't put most of their content online.)
I've also been influenced by my mother-in-law. In her 30 years as a preschool teacher, she learned that young children are easily confused by upsetting images. After 9/11, some of the kids in her class did not understand that television networks kept showing replays of the same scenes. They thought that another plane was crashing into another building every time they saw tragic footage from that day.
Living in the Des Moines suburbs, it's usually no challenge to keep my little ones from volatile political scenes. They get that not everyone votes the same way, but politics to them means coming with Mommy or Daddy to hear a candidate speak, help deliver yard signs or vote on election day.
When Fred Phelps and his clan from the Westboro Baptist Church planned a trip to central Iowa this month, it occurred to me that sheltering my children from their hatred might not be an option.
You've probably heard of Phelps, the self-styled pastor who pickets military funerals and other locations. He's obsessed with the idea of God punishing America because our society tolerates homosexuals. I won't link to his official website, but it's the only church around that put "God Hates Fags" in its url. He's been spreading his message of homophobia and Christian non-brotherhood for a long time, but has been targeting Jewish sites more frequently this year.
Phelps brought a handful of followers to Des Moines in May to protest same-sex marriage rights near the Polk County recorder's office. While he was here, his group held up offensive signs outside each of the three synagogues in town before heading to Lincoln High School to protest a student receiving a Matthew Shepard scholarship. A couple hundred supporters of equality staged a counter-protest outside the high school, but the Jewish institutions chose not to engage the group or rise to their bait.
Mostly Phelps blames Jews for supposedly killing Jesus, but a flier he printed before his last visit to Iowa also claimed "Jews want fags to get married." Jews do tend to support marriage equality, according to some recent polls from other states, and what I've observed in my own congregation.
The "God Hates Fags" site includes a calendar of upcoming demonstrations, and a few weeks ago they announced plans to return to central Iowa. They scheduled pickets in three locations: outside a Marshalltown theater staging a production of "The Laramie Project"; on the Iowa State University campus in Ames; and near the Iowa Jewish Historical Society in Waukee. On any given weekday afternoon, hardly anyone would be driving to or from the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, but for part of the summer a Jewish day camp uses the facility.
Phelps' group planned to picket from 2:15 to 3:00 pm, which is not long before the usual end of the camp day. The roadside area where they would be standing can't be seen from the camp, but many parents were concerned about having to drive past the protesters after picking up their kids. Some of the children would be old enough to read and understand the anti-Semitic slogans.
The camp staff decided to end the day early to avoid contact between families and Phelps. When I told my six-year-old that I'd be picking him up early on Friday, of course he wanted to know why. I said something vague about how other people would be out there, and we didn't want to get in their way. He loves the Friday-afternoon routine at camp and didn't want to come home early, so I got permission to let him stay with the kids in aftercare until the usual pickup time. I was happy with the solution; on principle I don't believe in rearranging my life because of a few idiots holding signs.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I worried about rumors my son might hear regarding the early closing. Were other kids or counselors going to start talking about people who hate us coming near their camp? Would he have more questions about the people we were trying to avoid?
Raising Jewish children in a community that's less than 1 percent Jewish, we have focused on giving our kids positive experiences. We don't want them to become fearful about others not liking Jews. Our children understand that we celebrate Chanukah while most people are celebrating Christmas, and we celebrate Passover instead of Easter. But we have not gotten into the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity or the historical tensions between the two communities. The last thing I want is for my six-year-old to develop a siege mentality a month before he goes back to his public school where there aren't any other Jews in his class.
Obviously my children will learn about anti-Semitism one day, but this didn't seem like the right time. Still, I felt we needed to be able to answer questions honestly if they arose, and I was struggling to think of an age-appropriate way to explain group hatred.
I decided that if my son asked why people hate Jews, or why the people who hate Jews were coming to his camp, I would place it in a context that was familiar but didn't apply directly to our situation. We have the first two Harry Potter books on tape, and my son knows those stories well. I settled on an analogy about Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker. He was unhappy about being a squib, and he channeled that unhappiness into anger and resentment toward the Hogwarts students. I was ready to explain that like Filch, some people who have problems blame other groups of people for making them unhappy. Instead of trying to make their own lives better, they spend their energy hating other people.
Last Friday came. I picked my son up at the usual time. The Phelps gang stayed true to their picket schedule and were gone before I drove in. My son enjoyed playing with the counselors and other children for a couple of hours after most of the kids had gone home. They had a small enough group to do their usual Shabbat service inside a tent, which was exciting. They were far from the road and hadn't had any exposure to the nasty signs. My son didn't seem agitated or curious about why other parents picked up their kids early.
Someday, my kids will ask me why some people hate Jews, or African-Americans, or gays and lesbians, and I won't be caught off-guard. I'll be ready with my Argus Filch analogy, or maybe by then I'll have thought of a better answer they can comprehend. Please share your own ideas or experience with explaining bigotry to children in this thread.