Our neighbor and her kids are coming up the street pulling a big wheelbarrow full of donated food items for the local food pantry. It’s pickup day and my kids and I have shopped together and are ready with the requested items for this month. We have talked about how these items will help a family and what it must be like to not have enough food to eat.
As I recall this memory of my own family, I think of today’s issues and the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing our world, which feels more urgent now than ever. How do we teach our children to be kind and helpful to others and the world around them?
As the climate crisis looms, violence against minorities rises, the income gap expands and expressions of hate pervade our schools, our kids will need empathy and empowerment to create a world worth living in.
These problems are huge and beyond the understanding of children when they are so young. While we want to equip our children to feel empowered to reverse the crises rising around us, our other parenting instinct is to protect them from such horrifying scenarios.
Toddlers are only just beginning to learn that their actions can have consequences. Throwing a toy, hitting a sibling or crying for a parent all produce immediate reactions that help them understand their power. Even at this young age, we can redirect their actions. Have them try hugging, sharing or participating in a cooperative sensory activity and talk to them about the positive feelings they created.
Parenting experts say that one of the best things we can do for our kids is to model the behavior we are trying to teach them. We can go one step further by acting with our kids and involving them. We can start by framing the issue in terms they can understand based on their own experience and developmental level: “Some children don’t have any toys.” “Some children are teased by others.” “Some families don’t have a home or enough to eat.” “With so much trash in the world, we could run out of room for playgrounds.”
As I fast forward to the No Hate, No Fear march against antisemitism in New York City, I wonder about what I would say to my kids if they were younger. I might start by recalling other conversations we had about being left out or being called names. Together, we would read a story about courage in which people stood up and took action. Then I would say: “What happened to the Jews in the Chanukah story or what happened to black people in America sometimes still happens. We need to be like the Maccabees and like Martin Luther King and stand together and say no.”
As parents, it’s on us to teach and model empathy to our young children. With their growing knowledge, kids being empowered will help them raise their voices and mobilize for an equitable, safe, healthy world for everyone. Whether this is through gathering and preparing donations, standing up for someone, recycling or one of many other opportunities, we can act together with our children for a better future. The next generation is sure to confront these issues head on. Let’s make sure they are prepared!
Stephanie Marlin-Curiel is family engagement coordinator in the Boston Metro North area.
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