Presenting the Schalit conundrum to children

While we consider which side of the argument to take, however, we tend to ignore our children as potential partners in the discussion.

School children 521 (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
School children 521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gilad Schalit’s release brings to the fore some very important dilemmas for early childhood educators and for parents of young children both in Israel and abroad. Those of us who care deeply about the education of young children are faced with the question of how to talk with children about Schalit’s release, what stance to take and the extent to which we want to engage children in the national discourse that has riveted our society for the past week.
While our national leaders are making painful decisions and weighing costly options, we naturally take sides in the ongoing debate swirling around us. We all ask ourselves what we would do if we were Gilad Schalit’s parents, and then we immediately ask questions about the safety of our own children, whose own futures now seem at stake.
While we consider which side of the argument to take, however, we tend to ignore our children as potential partners in the discussion.
As much as we would like to believe that we can protect our children from this emotionally draining national debate by shutting off the television, the radio and the computer, in fact we have little control over their access to information. Like it or not, children are quite aware of the euphoria around Schalit’s release as well as the harsh criticism accompanying this national event.
To illustrate this point, look at the lessons learned from the Twin Towers disaster 10 years ago. On September 12, 2001, the day after the horrific tragedy, I stood in front of a public kindergarten as children arrived for the day and asked parents for permission to ask their children what had happened the previous day in America. Many consented to the question, but explained that their children knew nothing of the disaster because they were careful to have turned off the media and to have avoided any discussion on the matter in their children’s presence.
They were wrong. Every child had a story to tell about the disaster. Every one of them knew. If this was the case 10 years ago, we can conclude that today, with ever more omnipresent social media tools, our young children are even better informed.
TWO DIFFERING approaches offer solutions to helping children develop resilience in the face of adverse or confusing events: one is to create an island of serenity by keeping things simple and pleasant, by excluding the potentially traumatic stimuli, and the other is to actively engage the child in considering what has happened.
While we do not have adequate research evidence to support either view, we should consider the advantages of the second approach in facing our current dilemma around Schalit’s release.
In considering our role as educators, we would do well to consider the opportunity which Schalit’s release provides for us to engage our children in the national discourse at an age-appropriate level. Before setting out on this path of age appropriate exposure, we must first find out how much the child already knows. This initial mapping will enable us to set the facts straight and help the child sort out a morass of confusing information.
Having presented ourselves as empathetic listeners, our next consideration should be the emotional backdrop that is already in place. In kindergartens around the country, children have been praying for Gilad Schalit’s release for years.
His picture may have appeared on the bulletin board. As many of us have shared our hopes for his release with our children, now is the time to cash in the coupon – to explore the idea of a wish fulfilled, a prayer answered. Consequential reasoning may not be a forte for many young children; however, this is a classic example in which a child is likely to generate cause-and-effect-type logic.
We can support a higher order thinking by asking such questions as “Why do you think this happened? Why did our enemies decide to let him go? Explain your idea to me.”
Answers are likely to be innocently simple, yet they reflect the young child’s need to construct knowledge about the world based on the facts at hand. Exploring the child’s own theories with her will help her build more sophisticated connections in the future.
The complexity of the Schalit release is truly beyond the cognitive capabilities of young children. They cannot and should not be asked to weigh the various sides of the argument.
Their participation in this adult discourse will of necessity be limited to sorting out the facts, expressing feelings and, if we can find away to do so, providing them with a note of optimism: Our leaders cared enough about our soldier to bring him home.
Can a parent or teacher who fosters serious reservations about the Schalit deal present such an optimistic message to children? The answer to this question is of course a personal one based on deeply-held concepts of child rearing and desirable relationships with our children. Those of us who can honestly and openly support the prisoner exchange are in an easier position than those of us who oppose it. I would propose to both sides to consider the young child’s need to believe in the adults surrounding him and in the national leaders whose job it is to protect us. In this case, an island of serenity combined with a healthy dose of listening and opening up our minds and hearts to our young charges may go a long way toward resolving our own personal dilemmas in the face of a national issue whose resolution is not so simple.
The writer is associate professor of education and chairman of the Early Childhood Department at the Efrata College of Education in Jerusalem