February 27, 2020

Esther Rbibo on How to Talk to Kids About Anti-Semitism

Esther Rbibo

A well-intentioned relative recently emailed me an article about the attack in Monsey, N.Y. He also sent a copy to my 12-year-old daughter. I perused the story, which included graphic details. I then deleted the email to my daughter on her computer. (I also emailed him to let him know what I had done and why.) I don’t usually do this sort of thing. But I thought it was too much for my sensitive kid. Was I being overprotective?

Like many parents, I struggle with how to support my children and talk to them about anti-Semitism and an increase in hate crimes, including the ransacking of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and anti-Semitic graffiti appearing in various places around Los Angeles. 

Esther Rbibo, director of guidance and counseling at Shalhevet High School, spoke to the Journal and offered some direction on how to discuss these issues with our children.

The goal, Rbibo said, is “to provide [children] with the greatest sense of safety and security that you can.” This does not mean lying, she explained. While some adults might be tempted to tell their kids that nothing could ever happen to them or their school or synagogue, Rbibo doesn’t recommend this.

“A child is not going to necessarily even buy into that because we know the world that we live in,” she said. “It’s almost like creating a false sense of security. And then the child may be less likely to trust the parent.”

Rbibo did underscore the importance of considering a child’s age and maturity in these discussions. “With a really young child, it’s more appropriate to give that sense of, ‘Mom and Dad have this,’ ” she said. In general though, she is a big proponent of transparency.

“I would address the specifics in their life,” she said. For example, “ ‘We’re doing our best to create a really safe environment for you; your school has X, Y and Z security; I always know where you are.’ ”

Rbibo also recommends possibly coming up with a family plan, as in, “What do we need to feel safe in our family when we’re home, when we’re out? It gives the child something to do and take ownership of and feel part of.”

She added,  “It’s so much about the way we convey things, not just what we convey.” That means “first checking ourselves as parents and making sure we’re ready to have that conversation, that we’re in a state of calm because our children will mirror whatever it is we are reflecting outward.”

“It’s so much about the way we convey things, not just what we convey. [That means] first checking ourselves as parents and making sure we’re ready to have that conversation.” — Esther Rbibo

She also recommends initiating age-appropriate conversations with your children even if they haven’t said anything. “In this day and age, most children beyond a certain age are going to have exposure, through friends or social media,” Rbibo said. And by doing so, parents send their kids a clear signal that it’s OK to talk about these things.

Parents and other loved ones need not pretend that they are immune from worry, she added. “It’s beneficial for a child to see a parent having emotions like sadness,” Rbibo said. “The same with positive emotions. … Our kids should see that [their parents] are human.”

Ultimately, the best thing a parent or loved one can do simply may be to listen. 

“So much is being clued in to the child and letting them talk it through,” Rbibo said. “You can ask open-ended questions. Not us having to provide information but asking them what do they need? What information do they want? Some kids might [say], ‘I don’t even want to know.’ And also honoring that. The second piece is validating their emotions, providing that sense of, ‘We’re in this together, I hear you, I understand you.’ Really hearing the child out.” 

Parents need support, too, Rbibo said. “Sometimes that means leaning on other parents, on a spouse, on friends, on possibly a professional depending on what’s going on, and being able to have a place to also unload one’s own fears.”