Balancing Awareness, Empathy, and Safety
T is in kindergarten at a Jewish Day School. Each Friday, the children throughout the school bring tzedakah, and in the spring, each class becomes a giving circle – deciding, as a group, where the money should go. (Maybe we should think about having a children’s version of HEKDESH. Hmmm… But that’s for another post. If you have ideas, please email to [email protected])
To facilitate the giving circle process, the school sent home a list of the organizations that every class in the school would be discussing (the same list for the whole school) and asked the parents to spend 30 minutes with our children discussing the various organizations. The “homework assignment” was to discuss and then write down T’s top three choices, including a “reason” for why she chose the organization she’d listed as number one.
As someone who is involved in HEKDESH leadership, you can imagine that I was very excited by this assignment! I eagerly talked with T about when we would sit down to discuss and what it meant to be a giving circle. I printed out the materials from the school and thought I was all ready.
Thursday afternoon, T and I sat down for our discussion. I turned the page of the packet to the first organization and began reading. All of a sudden I realized that this was more complicated than I’d thought. In the past, when each Chanukah we had set aside an evening for her to decide where her tzedakah money should go, I had chosen organizations I thought she could relate to relatively easily – helping parents and babies living in poverty; helping animals; helping feed the hungry.
As I started reading the descriptions of organizations from her school, all of a sudden I was reading about orphans, widows, war veterans, cancer.
My first reaction was to shield her – I immediately started reading more slowly so I could “edit” as I read. I changed some words, and explained some things in general terms, trying to avoid talking about parents dying or war and guns or people getting deathly ill.
But then I realized that perhaps now is the time to start talking with T about these things. This year she’s learning to read, which opens up a whole new world to her that she can access without me as a filter. And she’s now in school full days, interacting with her classmates and older children who may tell her all kinds of things. Isn’t it better if I introduce some of these concepts to her, rather than her hearing them from elsewhere?
What’s your experience been? At what age did you talk with your child about things like orphans and widows and war veterans and cancer? What was the context? Did you use tzedakah for introducing uncomfortable topics? Or did you try to make tzedakah meaningful to your kids by helping them address problems that speak to them? And how do you find the right words and the best “way in” so that your child gains awareness, develops empathy, and feels safe?
(As a postscript, T’s teachers told me that they only shared a few of the organizations with her class. The full list was shared with older classes.)