Israeli war hits close to home; parents help children cope

By Ellie S. Grossman

The morning starts out innocent enough. Like every other school day, Sari brushes her sun-streaked curls before I twirl her soft hair in a ponytail. Now a second-grader, Sari checks her homework inside her new pink camouflage backpack, while I whip up a strawberry yogurt smoothie in the blender for us to share at breakfast. I join Sari at the kitchen table and watch her use one finger to carefully spread thick cream cheese on a blueberry bagel. Then, of out nowhere, she asks me, “Has Osama bin Laden been caught yet?”

The school bell across the street is about to ring, and my 7-year-old daughter wants to discuss the latest conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. “The bad guy is still hiding in a cave,” I tell her. “Now go brush your teeth!”

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As I rinse the dishes in the sink, I realize that this particular Monday morning is not so innocent after all. Like so many other young people, Sari is no longer oblivious to the violence in our world. On this sunshiny day, we hold hands and cross the street to the school parking lot. Meanwhile, hundreds of children in war-ravaged cities like Haifa in northern Israel and Tyre, in southern Lebanon, flee to crowded bomb shelters.

Many parents, such as myself, struggle with how to talk to our children about war and terrorism. Since I don’t fully understand the deep history and complicated politics myself, the dialogue is even more difficult. There are no easy answers, but one thing I know for sure: All of us want to feel safe. The best way for me to help Sari and her older brother Jack feel safe is to listen to their fears and concerns. I try to keep our discussions simple. I reassure them that the war is far away and they are safe at home. Even though I’m aware of news reports that warn us every day of new threats to our homeland, I tell them that the president’s job is to protect our country. We talk about how most people are good, and just a few are led astray by evil leaders. Finally, I reinforce what they learn in Sunday School — we are the “Chosen People.” Jews are small but mighty. And, unlike any other country, Israel has stood strong and survived many, many battles for thousands of years.

Sometimes I get stuck on a sensitive topic that hits close to home, such as this one:

Sari: “Why can’t we carry liquids, like baby shampoo or a juice box, on the airplane when we fly to Florida anymore?”

Me: “Ummmm … Airline passengers have to carry on less baggage these days to help save fuel.”

Jack: “That’s not what I heard. We aren’t allowed to bring even cough medicine on the airplane because the terrorists have tried to make bombs and kill people.”

Sari: “Is that true mom?”

Me: “The airport police work very hard to check everyone’s bags and protect us from danger.”

Sari: “That’s good. Because I really want to go to the beach.”

So the leisurely days of travel are bygone memories. I remember when I flew on an airplane as a child, my mother’s biggest concern was to prevent me from throwing up. In fact, I never left the ground without melting a pasty Dramamine on my tongue. Nowadays, our generation of parents worries about weapons, not just motion sickness, when the 747 leaves the runway.

The airline industry reflects how the world is changing. The warfront once again invades our homes through the Internet, television, radio, and countless magazine and newspaper covers that glare at our children in the supermarket checkout lines next to the Snickers candy bars. Whenever possible, I exercise parental control and try to shield them from too much scary stuff. For example, when we’re together I try not to watch the television news. Graphic scenes of demolished neighborhoods, bloody civilians, rows of body bags, blaring ambulance sirens, and explosive Katyusha rockets trigger nightmares for children and adults.

During wartime or any crisis situation, whether it’s a natural catastrophe like an earthquake or a manmade disaster like the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, parents need tools to handle their children’s emotional well-being. As far as the war in Israel, the best defense against ignorance is education. When Sari asks me, “What’s the Gaza Strip?” I want to know where and what she’s talking about. That’s why I try to stay up-to-date on the latest developments by reading articles in the St. Louis Jewish Light and numerous other news sources, such as www.jewishinstlouis.org. With adult supervision, the Internet is an excellent way for children to stay informed. One of my favorite age-appropriate websites is www.babaganewz.com.

In times of uncertainty, children need their parents more than ever. The easiest way to help our children is to spend a little extra time with each other. If they are confused or anxious, give them something to do, such as draw pictures and write stories to express their feelings. They also can make cards for families of fallen soldiers and civilians killed in recent weeks. (Mail letters to JCRC, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63146, or e-mail [email protected]).

I also set a good example for my children when I stand behind Israel and show my support, whether it’s a donation to the Israel Emergency Campaign or participation in the local Jewish community’s efforts to help the growing number of displaced families in Israel. Although we don’t have family or friends in Israel right now, we are still one big family.

Finally, we can include Israel in our daily prayers. The Torah prophesies that “the Jews over time will be scattered among nations … and will always be few in number.” Our prophets wrote that Jews are a “light unto nations.” With these powerful words, we can teach our children about our history and that hope is eternal.

“The Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]