When I first heard about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh (I grew up just outside of that beloved city I call home), I was with my family, enjoying a rare Saturday without a ton of plans. The moment I saw the headline changed my day, our day. My husband, a journalist, headed into the office. And I struggled yet again with how to navigate the latest horror in our world.
So when my youngest one asked why his dad had to go to work on a Saturday, I stammered and said something lame.
And I thought of Deborah Gilboa, the family physician and parenting guru I and my writers often turn to for help. But this time, Gilboa was at the center of the issue. She lives with her four children in Squirrel Hill, and Tree of Life synagogue is one of the places at which she worships. If you want to understand the 'Burgh, as locals lovingly call it, you just have to know this: It's a small town. And Squirrel Hill is even smaller, where everyone seems to know everyone else.
So how, I asked Gilboa, does a parent talk to their kids after a nightmare like this one? How did she do it? Here is her advice, edited for length and clarity:
Q. How? How in the world do you explain this to a young child?
A. If your child is 8 or younger and you're sure they will not hear about it, then you don't need to talk to them about it. They won't understand. But you have to be sure they won't hear about it, because they will think it's not okay to talk to you about it if they do hear. In that case, give them just a little bit of information. Give them that foundation of knowing you're the expert, and that way they will know they can come to you.
Make one statement that has a value to it — a judgment in it. "A bad person hurt some people, and I was just worried for them." If they have a question, they'll ask. Give a short answer and see if they ask another question. Kids will take you as far as they're ready to go.
Q. And what about kids a little bit older?
A. For kids 8 and older, process your own emotions away from them. Check that reaction and talk to someone you trust. That protects kids from feeling like they're supposed to comfort you. Then decide what value you want them to take away. What one thing do you want them to remember from this first conversation? It could be: "Let's think about what we can do." Or "let's look for helpers." Or maybe just talk about a message of love and diversity or respecting someone's worship. We get to drip our values into them along with facts. That's why it's good to have this conversation with them when they're 11 years old and not wait until high school. We want to teach them what is right, and more. Not less.
Q. How can we talk about it so they listen?
A. Ask if they heard about this thing or what they think or know about a thing that happened, then listen. That way, you know you're entering the conversation where they are and not where you imagine they are.
Then you get to give short information along with your values. It's much better to have lots of conversation about this than turn into Charlie Brown's teacher. Then ask how they're feeling. Validate those feelings and check back in.
Q. You have four sons, ages 10 to 16. How are you dealing with this as a mother?
A. I'm trying to model for my kids: how I give myself some spaces throughout the day to have my own feelings. How to be with people. How I live with the values of our faith and world view. How I look for chances to do good. We're thanking police, have set up a meal train for the first responders in our own police zone and the 70 people protecting the synagogue so they feel our appreciation, because in our culture, food is love. I'm looking for chances to do but also looking for chances to just be. When my children ask how I'm feeling, I need to be honest with them, without them feeling like it's their job to make me feel better.
Q. What other good and important lessons can come from this time?
A. One of the basic tenets of resilience is to be able to hold more than one emotion at same time. If you've ever been to funeral or shiva or wake, you can be surprised to hear grieving people laughing. A middle-schooler or younger might think, "Does that mean they're done being sad?" Here they can learn you can have more than one emotion, even opposing emotions, at the same time. Pride and anger, sadness, hope, joy and devastation. It's a really important lesson.