I dodged a teachable moment last week

I've been taking my children to political rallies, receptions, and house parties since they were babies. Many Iowa Democrats have claimed not to recognize me without a small child riding on my front, hip or back.

At the same time, I've avoided exposing my kids to political scenes likely to turn confrontational, such as anti-war demonstrations. An article I read years ago in Mothering magazine persuasively argued that because young children cannot understand abstract political concepts, they are likely to be disturbed by the anger they encounter at a protest rally. (Sorry, no link--they don't put most of their content online.)

I've also been influenced by my mother-in-law. In her 30 years as a preschool teacher, she learned that young children are easily confused by upsetting images. After 9/11, some of the kids in her class did not understand that television networks kept showing replays of the same scenes. They thought that another plane was crashing into another building every time they saw tragic footage from that day.

Living in the Des Moines suburbs, it's usually no challenge to keep my little ones from volatile political scenes. They get that not everyone votes the same way, but politics to them means coming with Mommy or Daddy to hear a candidate speak, help deliver yard signs or vote on election day.

When Fred Phelps and his clan from the Westboro Baptist Church planned a trip to central Iowa this month, it occurred to me that sheltering my children from their hatred might not be an option.

You've probably heard of Phelps, the self-styled pastor who pickets military funerals and other locations. He's obsessed with the idea of God punishing America because our society tolerates homosexuals. I won't link to his official website, but it's the only church around that put "God Hates Fags" in its url. He's been spreading his message of homophobia and Christian non-brotherhood for a long time, but has been targeting Jewish sites more frequently this year.

Phelps brought a handful of followers to Des Moines in May to protest same-sex marriage rights near the Polk County recorder's office. While he was here, his group held up offensive signs outside each of the three synagogues in town before heading to Lincoln High School to protest a student receiving a Matthew Shepard scholarship. A couple hundred supporters of equality staged a counter-protest outside the high school, but the Jewish institutions chose not to engage the group or rise to their bait.

Mostly Phelps blames Jews for supposedly killing Jesus, but a flier he printed before his last visit to Iowa also claimed "Jews want fags to get married." Jews do tend to support marriage equality, according to some recent polls from other states, and what I've observed in my own congregation.

The "God Hates Fags" site includes a calendar of upcoming demonstrations, and a few weeks ago they announced plans to return to central Iowa. They scheduled pickets in three locations: outside a Marshalltown theater staging a production of "The Laramie Project"; on the Iowa State University campus in Ames; and near the Iowa Jewish Historical Society in Waukee. On any given weekday afternoon, hardly anyone would be driving to or from the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, but for part of the summer a Jewish day camp uses the facility.

Phelps' group planned to picket from 2:15 to 3:00 pm, which is not long before the usual end of the camp day. The roadside area where they would be standing can't be seen from the camp, but many parents were concerned about having to drive past the protesters after picking up their kids. Some of the children would be old enough to read and understand the anti-Semitic slogans.

The camp staff decided to end the day early to avoid contact between families and Phelps. When I told my six-year-old that I'd be picking him up early on Friday, of course he wanted to know why. I said something vague about how other people would be out there, and we didn't want to get in their way. He loves the Friday-afternoon routine at camp and didn't want to come home early, so I got permission to let him stay with the kids in aftercare until the usual pickup time. I was happy with the solution; on principle I don't believe in rearranging my life because of a few idiots holding signs.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I worried about rumors my son might hear regarding the early closing. Were other kids or counselors going to start talking about people who hate us coming near their camp? Would he have more questions about the people we were trying to avoid?

Raising Jewish children in a community that's less than 1 percent Jewish, we have focused on giving our kids positive experiences. We don't want them to become fearful about others not liking Jews. Our children understand that we celebrate Chanukah while most people are celebrating Christmas, and we celebrate Passover instead of Easter. But we have not gotten into the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity or the historical tensions between the two communities. The last thing I want is for my six-year-old to develop a siege mentality a month before he goes back to his public school where there aren't any other Jews in his class.

Obviously my children will learn about anti-Semitism one day, but this didn't seem like the right time. Still, I felt we needed to be able to answer questions honestly if they arose, and I was struggling to think of an age-appropriate way to explain group hatred.

I decided that if my son asked why people hate Jews, or why the people who hate Jews were coming to his camp, I would place it in a context that was familiar but didn't apply directly to our situation. We have the first two Harry Potter books on tape, and my son knows those stories well. I settled on an analogy about Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker. He was unhappy about being a squib, and he channeled that unhappiness into anger and resentment toward the Hogwarts students. I was ready to explain that like Filch, some people who have problems blame other groups of people for making them unhappy. Instead of trying to make their own lives better, they spend their energy hating other people.

Last Friday came. I picked my son up at the usual time. The Phelps gang stayed true to their picket schedule and were gone before I drove in. My son enjoyed playing with the counselors and other children for a couple of hours after most of the kids had gone home. They had a small enough group to do their usual Shabbat service inside a tent, which was exciting. They were far from the road and hadn't had any exposure to the nasty signs. My son didn't seem agitated or curious about why other parents picked up their kids early.

Someday, my kids will ask me why some people hate Jews, or African-Americans, or gays and lesbians, and I won't be caught off-guard. I'll be ready with my Argus Filch analogy, or maybe by then I'll have thought of a better answer they can comprehend. Please share your own ideas or experience with explaining bigotry to children in this thread.

Tags: anti-Semitism, bigotry, Fred Phelps, Gay Marriage, homophobia, Judaism, Parenting, Personal, political protests, religion, Westboro Baptist Church (all tags)

Comments

5 Comments

Re: I dodged a teachable moment last week

Many years ago now I went with my partner and her two children, Tamara 6 and Jon 5, to her parent's summer home on a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. Jon had been a discipline problem until I arrived on the scene when he finally found someone who would outlast his tantrums--he could go for weeks not speaking. And our little family was in good shape. In short order with his grandparent's connivance, he was back to his old tricks throwing a temper tantrum over not getting a bow [as in bow and arrow] made for a full grown man. This is the background as we all[Betsy, my partner, her two brothers and their wives and their kids]gathered at the dining room table for the evening meal. Her father a former diplomat would often get drunk at these gatherings and his favorite sport was to insult one or the other of the sons-in-law--accusing them of wanting to live off his daughter's money or some such. It turned out that night was my turn. I forget the name of the Washington official who was arrested for sex with another man in a public place, but the father said, "Goddamn homos. We ought to kill 'em all." I put my head down and thought, you are either going to take this or yu aren't. I stood up and said, "That is insulting and I will not tolerate it." Whereupon I turned a huge salad bowl over that was sitting in the middle of the table. The latter improvised gesture was  because his verbal hi-jinks were always met with verbal answers and they never worked. I intended to go out in  a blaze of emphatic glory. So having done the unthinkable I stormed off to the little guest house on the property where Betsy and I had been staying. Well, unbeknownst to me, Jon had been  hiding under the table. And he came along a few minutes later. He said, "you aren't going to get any dinner." And I said, "Well, I couldn't eat with someone insulting me." At this he jumped up and pulled down a box of Cheerios. He fixed us each a bowl and we were sitting at the counter eating "our dinner" when Betsy came in. She was aghast. But Jon was not. And then Tamara and some of the other kids came in and they wanted to know why I tossed the salad in the air. And so I told them about prejudice and how it hurts people to be called insulting names and that when people call you bad names you have a choice to either look the other way or protest. I had chosen to protest. Lo and behold I became the children's hero. And what I told Betsy when we were alone is this: Jon and Tamara had now seen someone stand up rather than be called a homo who should be killed. They could see for themselves that someone thought this language was very wrong. And not acceptable. The next day in front of the children her father apologized to me and we carried on with the rest of the vacation. I had not known what I would do when I stood up at that table. And tossing the salad in a way seems silly. But it was an emphatic gesture. It left no room for argument. It communicated the Big No. And that is what I wanted to do. So I didn't dodge the moment. But it became a wonderful teaching moment. And one that Jon and Tamara remembered with pride.  

by linfar 2009-07-31 01:32PM | 0 recs
great story

I can imagine that overturning a salad bowl would make a HUGE impression with kids of that age. As in, I don't just disagree with what you said, I reject your bigotry completely.

by desmoinesdem 2009-07-31 09:15PM | 0 recs
Re: I dodged a teachable moment last week

Wouldn't the "mudblood" comparison have worked even better?

And don't worry, if they take after you I'm sure your kids will be able to take the ugliness in the world and maybe make some of it better.

by ARDem 2009-07-31 08:03PM | 0 recs
yes, maybe it would

Thanks--if it comes up in future, I can bring that in too. Then again, the "pureblood" contempt for "mugbloods" seems to have more to do with power and social status than with compensating for their own unhappiness (as with Filch).

by desmoinesdem 2009-07-31 09:12PM | 0 recs
Phelps' business plan

If you dig into the history of Phelps et al., you find that his "church" is actually a small cult-like organization consisting mainly of his relatives, who mostly seem to be lawyers.  The business plan of his organization appears to be to make demonstrations that are as offensive as possible, then cash in with a legal settlement when someone (understandably but illegallly) slugs one of them.  It's almost more disgusting than if they actually believed the nonsense they spew.

(See. e.g., the Wikipedia articles on "Westboro Baptist Church" and "Patriot Guard Riders".  The latter is to get the bad taste out of your mouth, keyboard, etc., after reading the former.  The PGR are "a motorcyclist group comprised mostly of veterans who attend the funerals of members of the U.S. Armed Forces at the invitation of the deceased's family".)

by DaveMB 2009-08-01 04:47PM | 0 recs

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