I dodged a teachable moment last week

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.

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  • I guess maybe we didn't do such a good job with Havah...

    She visited me at a federal detention facility on her fourth birthday.  Her big thing has been teasing me about being forced to wear orange all day, every day for months on end.

    And, of course she has been to many, many demonstrations and has seen me risk arrest inumerable times.

    She pretty much gets that there are people in power who detest what her mom and I stand for.

    We’ve had her in public school all her life, and there has never been any conflict with her school and our

    values.  She does not say the pledge of allegiance per our instructions.

    On the downside; Most of the time she plays “school” with us, and has us do a course curriculum based on what she is learning at school.  And she tells everyone she wants to be a teacher when “she grows up”.  Except when I put the brakes on inappropriate behavior.  Then she glowers at me and says, “You know, I might want to be a police officer when I grow up, so you better be nice to me, or I might throw you in jail for being so mean to me as a kid”.

    But she gets that there are differing views of things.  Her only complaint about being Jewish is that she can’t wait for her Bat Mitzvah so she can decide for herself on dietary restrictions.  One of her friends slipped her a piece of pepperoni pizza once, and it took some serious convincing to get her to believe that pepperoni is trafe.  That’s just because it tastes so good.

    And I would argue about there only being a “couple hundred” kids counterdemonstrating Fred Phelps at Lincoln.  I would say it was closer to 450-500.  It was impressive, and the kids were REALLY loud in shouting Phelps down. No way that many kids would have turned out on that issue when I was in school.

    • parents have different philosophies

      I remember there were a lot of letters to the editor of Mothering complaining about that article. Plenty of people believe as you do that it’s important to involve young children in the causes their parents are passionate about.

  • PS on Havah...

    She’s eight now, and we have been dodging the Shoah and Nakbah thus far. And we haven’t really gotten into why her Chinese parents felt forced to abandon her due to governmental regs. Hopefully seeing me forced to endure consequences from the government simply for voicing opposition to policies might help with that..

  • How I explained bigotry to my five year old son:

    Here is my own experience explaining racism to my sone when he was five.  He has a twin brother.  We are also Jewish, and we were living in Waterloo, IA at the time:


    Josh called to tell me about it first, and then the babysitter confirmed it when I picked up the boys.

    Ben was on the playground with a friend at school. They were excited by something they were looking at so they called their classmates over to look. But they told three of their classmates that they couldn’t join in. Because, his friend explained and Ben repeated, they “have black skin.”

    It was as if someone had run me through with a sword. I doubled over, nauseous, and nearly vomited in the parking lot.

    The words and images continued to swim in my head as I raced to Samantha’s house. What would I say to him? How could I explain what he said? How should he apologize? How would I make him understand the magnitude of the hurt he inflicted on his friends?

    As soon as Ben saw me he knew that I knew; I could tell that he felt ashamed. The teachers had already spoken to him about it and told him he would have to write me a letter or tell Samantha face-to-face. Ben spent the rest of the school day hiding, refusing to do either one. He knew that what he said was wrong, but he didn’t know why. It would be my job to tell him. Once again I felt myself start to retch.

    I dragged him kicking and screaming across the grass, his eyes filled with tears, his hands over his ears so he didn’t have to listen.

    I explained to him what people used to do to people who “had black skin.” I told them that other people would hit them, beat them, sometimes kill them. All because their skin was a different color.

    Ben’s eyes grew wider.

    “Would you like it if your friends told you that you couldn’t play with them because you are Jewish?” I asked.

    He slowly shook his head.

    “Ben, ” I said, “what you said–what you did–is called ‘racism.’ It is a horrible thing. It means that you think some people are better than others. It means that you don’t care about your friends. It means that you think some people deserve to be treated badly, to be hurt, or even die, just because of how they look or who they are. Ben, you are a wonderful person. So I am so sad that you would say something so awful.”

    In that moment, Ben’s face changed. The smile faded from his face. His eyes grew distant as he started to comprehend this concept that was so beyond his grasp. And then his eyes became watery; he started to cry and fell into my arms. In that very instant of comprehension, my beautiful, compassionate, articulate, and intelligent son grew a soul.

    As we left, I instructed Samantha to hold nothing back over the next few days. If Ben asks more questions about racism, about people who did and still do awful things to others, she is to tell him everything he wants to know. She is to tell him about lynching, she is to tell him about slavery. She is to tell him about the Holocaust and about genocide. Because if he is old enough to say something like that, he is old enough to know what it means.

    Before we left, Ben told me that he wanted to make some pictures and write letters to the three friends. I told him I thought that would be a wonderful way to tell his friends that he was sorry.

    One of my greatest fears as a mother is that my children will never forget all the painful experiences of their youth; that they might carry those stings and wounds with them throughout their lives. Each time I raise my voice at them I secretly hope that the bad memories created from the experience won’t last very long.

    But I hope Ben remembers this day for the rest of his life.

  • And now, a few years later...

    …we are living in Southern California (where I grew up) where the Jewish community is larger, more diverse, and less of a novelty to others.  You’d think that something like this couldn’t happen here:

    My Darling Benjamin:

    When you were born I made a promise that your soul would know compassion and sensitivity, so that you would grow with the spirit of “Tikkun Olam,” to make the world a better place.

    It was with that in mind that I taught you a very painful about racism a few years ago. Your cruel but innocent comments made an indelible mark on one of your friends, and I decided that since you were old enough to say something racist, you were old enough to know the meaning of what you said. It was gut-wrenching for both of us and I wanted it to be the hardest thing I ever had to do. But now I find myself in an even harder predicament. And though you are completely innocent of the events occurring around you I have to teach you once again about racism, intolerance, and bigotry.

    Ben, after you were placed in the prayer circle on Thursday night before the play, you and I talked about what happened and it was very clear to me that you didn’t understand what was happening. And so I explained it to you and told you that you didn’t have to do that again if you didn’t want to. That you could step out of the circle after the announcements and just before the prayer began, and then step back into the circle for the “cheer.” I didn’t ask anyone in the show if that would be okay, but I assumed that it would be because it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to force their religion on other people. Most people, when they are reminded that theirs isn’t the only religion in the world, try to be a respectful friend.

    But I also knew that you couldn’t determine when the prayer part of “circle activities” was going to begin. So I decided that I would be there before every performance to tell you when the prayer was starting. As you all stood there in the circle and the announcements were ending, someone called out for everyone to join hands. That’s when I walked over to you and, standing next to the choreographer, told you that they were about to start praying and you didn’t have to if you didn’t want to. And so you didn’t take anyone’s hand. But as I walked back to sit down, I heard the choreographer say, “Oh, he doesn’t know what he is doing.” She placed your hands into the hands of the kids standing next to you, and the prayer began. When it was over, I asked to speak to the choreographer and I explained to her that what she did was wrong. She told me that she didn’t realize that I was helping you remove yourself from the prayer circle. I asked her what she thought I was doing, and she said that she just assumed we didn’t know. I suggested to her that, generally when people of good-will make an assumption and are proven wrong, they apologize and promise it won’t happen again. She refused to apologize and told me I would have to speak to the director.

    And so I spoke to Denise. I told her that you are Jewish and that while much of the prayer circle can be seen as religiously inclusive, her demand that the prayer end “in Jesus’ name” is beyond what can be inclusive for a Jewish child. She said she didn’t care and that she wouldn’t stop the prayer circle or the language used. I asked her if there was some way that she or someone in the circle could announce in a way that a child your age would understand that they are about to pray, and she said no. I asked her if there were some way she could tell the cast that not all participants are Christian so that someone could remind you to leave when it was appropriate to do so, and she said no. I expressed to her how embarrassed you will feel if I conspicuously remove you from the room and then bring you back in, as she was telling me to do. And she said that I should be ashamed of myself for wanting you to be different. Finally, I asked her if you could just not participate in any of the “circle” activities-leave as the announcements begin and then just meet everyone backstage. And she told me that if you missed the relevant parts of the meeting that you would be kicked out of the play.

    I tell you this, Ben, because I want you to know how deeply troubled and conflicted I am about what is happening right now. When I was your age my father wouldn’t let me perform in a play because some of the rehearsals would be on the first nights of Passover. And when I was in high school he demanded that during our choir performance I had to step down and walk off the stage when we sang Christmas songs and come back when those songs were over. I always thought that his decisions were unfair, that his religion was more important to him than I and the things I was passionate about. I always felt that he was using me as a pawn in his own crusade against anti-Semitism. It was a wedge between us until the day he died.

    Ben, you are sweet and you are compassionate; you are brilliant and insightful. And none of that has anything to do with your religion. Your father and I believe in exposing you to the full breadth of religion so that you can make an informed choice when you are old enough to decide for yourself. We continue to teach you about the hundreds of different Jewish affiliations so that you can learn to celebrate the fact that we can all observe differently and still be Jewish. We want you to know that you can find your home in any form of Judaism and we will be happy with your choice. We also want you to know that what we love about you has nothing to do with being Jewish and so if–when you are old enough and have learned enough–you decide not to choose Judaism, we will support that choice as well.

    And so it’s time that you become more acquainted with religions beyond your own. Most of the religions you will encounter will embrace you and your beliefs, what ever they may be. But there will be a few religious people who will not embrace you and will not make space for your difference. And that may be uncomfortable for you. They may tell you that you are wrong, and they may make you feel really badly. If I go with you on this journey I will always stop the harm before if reaches you. As much as it pains me, I have to look away.

    I know that in the short term this will be a blip on the radar. You’ll stand in a circle 7 different times while people invoke the name of a person as G-d and you will not understand what it means. And then you will perform in all your glory, and when it’s all over we’ll find a new theatre program for you to be a part of.

    But I wonder what this memory will be for you in the long term. Will the fact that I refused to ever go inside that theatre again become a rallying cry every time I have misunderstood your needs? Will you expect me to abandon you whenever I am blinded by my own anger? Will you resent being left to fend for yourself when you were at your most defenseless? Or will you learn how awful it feels to be forced in any way to utter words that are foreign to you? Will you experience the conflict between loving your belief system and wanting to go along with the crowd? Will you face insults dealt by others and always wonder whether it was a reasonable action or an offense simply because of your diversity?

    Will this experience burn a hole in your heart as it has mine? And if so, has it been for all the right reasons?