As the new school year begins, let’s not disrupt our kids’ lives with the news or our own negativity.
Being a kid is difficult enough. Today, much is written about the ‘nine-year crisis’ – the change in the middle of childhood, between the ages of 9 to 11, when a child’s life becomes increasingly complex. This is when kids want to know how things work, they question everything grownups tell them (quite rightly), peer pressure grows, and they realize that their parents are not perfect. Basically, their entire world falls apart and they need to rebuild it in their own way. This age marks the loss of innocence, the exodus from ‘Eden’, the start of puberty and the challenges of being teenagers and young adults in a less-than-perfect world. Any parent of a teenager will tell you it’s an age of excitement and activity, but also stress and meltdowns.
Children at this age – let’s call them children, not young adults or consumers yet – need stability. That means, they need the grownups in their lives to be mentally and emotionally stable, if possible. Unfortunately, in the post-pandemic world, many grownups are unstable – tempers and attention-spans are short, while depression and world-weariness are at an all-time high.
In Israeli homes, mass disappointment and national manic depression are so common, it’s almost celebrated. Every night, Channels 11 to 14 are filled with what-we-used-to-call ‘Car Crash TV’. While the children are still awake, at prime viewing time, it’s common to see images of police brutality, an electric scooter accident, or even CCTV footage of gun violence on loop.
At Friday night dinners, raised voices in heated discussions are just as traditional as a raised glass of Kiddush wine. A little political debate between family members is healthy, the sign of a good, democratic society, you may think. But all too often these discussions can descend into dramatic dystopian diatribe. Anyone listening might think that the world is about to end. And this is not good for kids.
Yes, these are difficult times for Israel. Yes, the government is trying to pass very ‘unreasonable’ laws. Yes, Netanyahu should not be in power. Yes, Ben-Gvir should be charged for inciting violence, rather than being in charge of the police. Yes, the rise in gun killings in the Arab villages is troubling. Yes, some parts of the planet are burning under the heat. Indeed, it can feel like the country and the world are being destroyed, but we need to remember, children are often listening and looking to us as role models for their future.
Tel Aviv in 2023 did not suffer from a large natural disaster like the earthquake in Turkey or the floods in India. The current political crisis is a man-made, self-made mess and the result of a failed electoral system, but it is not the end yet. There is still a long battle ahead, and it’ll need our strength, determination, and hope.
I wonder what Jonathan Sacks – the beloved Chief Rabbi of the UK, who passed away in 2020 – would have to say about all that’s going on in Israel. A great intellect but also a great man of faith, I think he would have been saddened by the current government in Israel, but not saddened enough to lose hope. As he said, ‘Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue. Hope is an active one.’
Children need us to be hopeful. I’m not proposing that we ‘sugarcoat’ everything; if questions arise about democracy and the news, then grownups should answer. What’s important is not to expose children to our darkest fears or worries, and definitely not visions of real violence. Older children can be taught to look at all angles in an holistic way and even participate in discussions on the issues. Teenagers, after 14, can form their own views on the world rather than being told what to believe.
Younger children, let’s say under 12, need to hear us being strong and hopeful about their future. We need to filter out our angry rhetoric, turn off the TV news and tone down the apocalyptic phone calls, cynicism, and despair. Israel, and the world, are troubled, and kids need to be prepared for it, but not at the expense of their childhood. Let us not transfer our fears for their future onto them.
Luckily, Israelis and children in general are very resilient. The Jewish people have overcome much worse times. The 20th century was a century of war but also great social change. Hopeful anthems like ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘The Times They Are a Changin’ and ‘All You Need is Love’ should be as much part of the curriculum as studying the events of World War II.
The chorus of an early Coldplay song ‘Don’t Panic’ said, ‘We live in a beautiful world, yeah we do.’ This may sound naive and over-innocent but hope in the face of adversity is one our oldest and strongest traits.
As the children go back to school this week, let’s make an effort to not interfere with their childhood or education. Since Covid-19, interrupting and disrupting education has become the new normal. But let’s not block the roads that lead to schools. Let’s not close down schools for protests (they have enough holidays as it is). Instead, let’s show them that the world they’re about to inherit is a beautiful, precious place that needs continual work. Hope inspires children, and children are our hope.