Black families, familiar with their own fight for civil rights, have long felt kinship with Palestinians. Talking about the war with kids can be painful.
The Israel-Gaza conflict, which has been ongoing for decades, has again intensified, reaching another critical and deadly point. As Gaza continues to be attacked and violence that many are calling genocide rages on before everyone’s eyes, parents will have to navigate hard conversations with their children about what is happening in the Middle East.
For Black people–who are typically in support of the people of Gaza–the conversation is particularly nuanced. Black American communities have found kinship with Palestinians, having been subjected to oppression and colonialism, too, still enduring the lasting trauma and impact.
Historically, organizations such as the Black Panthers—who openly advocated for “the right of the Arab refugees to return to their Palestine homeland”—were labeled as terrorists and outliers. This in itself can bring out a lot of powerful emotions for us and our children.
Black activists such as Tamika Mallory and activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and Black Christians for Palestine are standing in solidarity with Palestinian causes. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Berniece King, took to Twitter to correct Amy Schumer’s false claims that her father would have supported Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
In the last few years, Palestinians have advised Black protesters during the racial justice uprisings following the death of George Floyd. They also painted murals of him as a show of support for the Black cause.
With round-the-clock news broadcasts and social media posts covering the Israel-Palestine war, it’s easy for children to be exposed to unfiltered and uncensored content, much of which contains images, videos, and conversations about suffering and death.
According to Dr. Judith Joseph, a child and adult psychiatrist, children as young as preschool age (four years old) are capable of understanding the concept of fighting and war. “You should ask yourself: “Does my child understand the concept of right vs wrong and fair vs unfair?”
“Chances are that they do,” Dr. Judith continues. “They may regularly have fights with siblings, peers, or even parents about fairness and unfairness, and that means that they likely understand war. In an age where it is almost impossible for parents to shield children from the news, social media, or information, knowing how to speak with children about these difficult topics is very important. If they are not hearing the information from you, you should assume that they are hearing it elsewhere.”
She says that there are useful steps that can be taken to approach the sensitive topic of war. “It’s important to listen–first learn about what they already know about the topic.” Her advice is to ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions. For example: “What have you heard about what’s happening in the world?” Instead of “Have you heard about the war?”
“Be honest. Don’t lie to them because they will feel unsafe if they find out what they were told by you is not true. Importantly, practice what you preach–don’t tell children one thing and then do the opposite in front of them. For example, if you tell them they are safe and you freak out in front of them, they believe what they see, not what they are told. If you tell them to limit exposure to violence in the news and you are glued to your TV, they won’t take your advice seriously.”
Help Them Develop Their Own Values
Stacey Younge, LCSW, owner of Sixth Street Wellness shares a similar outlook. “We all know how observant even the youngest of children are, so as soon as they start asking questions about the world and people around them, we should be listening and paying attention. We want to always be looking for moments that help them develop compassion and acceptance even at a very young age. While we want to protect our youngest kids from being exposed to violent and gruesome images as much as possible, kids older than seven are likely getting information from a variety of sources, so don't assume that not talking about it is protecting them.”
“It is likely that your home has a political leaning which has shown up in their lives already, so talking about your family values and beliefs will be a part of the conversation,” notes Younge. “You can talk about valuing humanity and how people are hurting no matter where they live. We can show how Palestinian, Muslim, and Jewish people are helping to make the situation better.”
Importantly, especially for Black children, Palestinian support is visibly growing on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram among Gen Zs and Millennials. Younger generations are understanding the continuous interconnection between the fight for freedom of Black and Palestinian people. Sadly, there’s also a deep, dark parallel between the lives of Black American children not being guaranteed, similar to the lives of Palestinian children.
“Though it may be hard to talk about, Black kids (especially older ones), can empathize with what it is like to feel discriminated against or be blamed for someone else's actions,” she voices. “They may also know what it is like to feel scared and alone in a scary situation and can feel compassion towards others who are experiencing something similar.”
Remember What's Developmentally Appropriate
Younge says that the youngest of kids want to know they are safe. “Gentle reminders that they are safe, loved, and that there are adults looking out for them can help children feel reassured. Using children’s books that talk about different kinds of people and experiences are also helpful.”
Dr. Judith agrees, stating that it’s also important to use developmentally appropriate language so that children are not overwhelmed. “You could try something like this: ‘Yes, there are parts of the world where people are getting hurt but you are safe because that is happening far from here.’ Validate their concerns and do not minimize their fears for example: ‘War is very scary and you are safe here. We are far from what is happening over there.’”
She further says to meet them where they are. “If a child says, ‘Why do people fight?’ or ‘Why are children being harmed?’ consider saying: ‘People want to be in charge and they are fighting to be in charge. It is scary and sad that children are being hurt. You are safe here.’”
For older kids, Dr. Judith highlights that it is important to find out what they know already. For example, sit with them and scroll through their social media together–it’s a good idea to ask what they are thinking and learn from them. “Try not to be judgmental or preachy. If you disagree with their point of view, try to listen rather than to argue. You want to encourage curiosity and autonomy,” she suggests.
“Consider reading a book together on the history of regions or books about the people who are involved in war so that you learn about different cultures. This humanizes individuals and grows your perspective as a family. If you understand the cultures and the history, you can empathize with people and be less judgmental about them. When older children ask questions you don’t have answers to, it is okay to say: “I don’t know.” And you can follow this with: ‘Let’s learn more together.’”
Younge agrees and recommends encouraging your children to watch the news with you so they have another option besides watching alone. Show them how to verify that a source is accurate and trustworthy. Encourage critical thinking skills and ask questions even from reputable sources.
To gauge your child’s understanding of the war, Younge advises to simply check in and listen. “We have to let them know it's OK to talk about hard topics. They may repeat or say things they heard that we may not like or agree with, but be mindful about getting upset. We can talk about being careful of making judgments or restating stereotypes. We can offer tools and resources they can engage with to learn more about a topic.”
“When listening to your child, ask if they know the definition of words or phrases that they use,” Younge continues. “Ask if they will share what TikToks or articles they have seen or watch the news with them so you can get an idea of what they are consuming so you can talk about it with them. If they like to draw, write, or recreate stories with their toys, let them. Those are all ways they can communicate how they are thinking about something.”
She also explains that it’s also useful to ask your children how they are talking about it at school, with friends, and if anyone they know is personally experiencing the impact of this war. Your child may want to offer support or advocate for them.
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