Since the conflict between Israel and Hamas accelerated on October 7, social media and news have been saturated with images of seemingly unspeakable violence — Palestinian children, living and dead, being dug out of rubble, the burnt body of an Israeli baby, children’s bedrooms on both sides smeared in blood and dust. Over 1,200 Israelis and 11,000 Palestinians have been killed.
The escalating tension has led to elevated antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States. Bias incidents against Jewish and Muslim Americans have spiked.
The 19th asked parents how they’re approaching such a complex conversation with their children. How are they protecting their children from graphic imagery while still being honest about what is happening? How are they talking to their children about safety in an increasingly hostile world?
We talked with four parents from various ideological backgrounds about how they’re discussing subjects with their children that even adults frequently struggle to explain to each other.
Rachel Faulkner is the director of national campaigns and partnerships at the National Council of Jewish Women, which aims to better the lives of women, children and families in the United States and Israel. She and her family live in Washington, D.C.
Faulkner has a 3-year-old daughter. Like many American Jews, she and her wife feel connected to Israel — and unfortunately they have personal connections to the October 7 attack.
“We have friends of friends [who were kidnapped] we are hoping are alive in Gaza,” Faulkner told the 19th.
Faulkner and her wife work hard to explain the importance of Israel to their family, as well as the importance of civil and human rights for everyone, including Palestinians, in ways that are age appropriate.
“Because she’s only 3, we haven’t gotten into the specifics of the war. But she does know that there’s a conflict happening in Israel. She knows about Israel as a Jewish state. She already has, we think, a love for Israel, but we also want to teach her that it’s OK and actually a good thing to question the way people are being treated,” Faulkner said.
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Faulkner’s daughter attends a public charter school where half the instruction is in Hebrew. The school is not religious and the majority of students are not Jewish. But the campus has been on high alert anyway, because of the association of the Hebrew language with Judaism and the state of Israel. There has been an elevated police presence at the school as a result.
Faulkner and her daughter are both Black, and she is worried that the increased police presence puts her daughter at risk. Police in schools disproportionately use violence against Black students.
“I understand why an antisemitic threat would put a Hebrew-speaking school on high alert. But I’m not sure the heightened police presence made everyone feel safe. I also don’t like the idea of my daughter feeling like she needs to have a police presence to learn Hebrew,” Faulkner said.
She is also dismayed by the polarization she has seen in discussions meant for children. It has made it difficult to find resources for support.
“What I’ve seen for kids is a narrative that only allows you to love Israel but not talk about Palestinians, or that wants you to end the occupation but also pushes for the demise of Israel altogether. It’s all so extreme and bifurcated — right and wrong, black and white. But it’s not a team sport. We’re talking about people’s lives.”
Sahar Pirzada is manager of movement building at HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing reproductive justice and fighting domestic violence in Muslim communities. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children, ages 4 and 1.
Pirzada is Pakistani-American and does not have family in Gaza, but she knows people who do.
“Being Muslim, you’re part of a larger community,” she said.
Pirzada’s baby is still too young for complex conversations about the world, but she and her husband have had conversations with their 4-year-old about what is happening.
“She knows there is a place called Palestine, and that there are a lot of children there. There are people who are hurting them and destroying their homes, and they don’t have any place to go. That they don’t have water or food,” Pirzada said.
Her daughter has limited, supervised screen time, watching PBS Kids or similar apps with content intended for children. Pirzada did show her daughter one video of a little boy around the same age who survived a bombing in Gaza, as a teaching tool to explain the conflict.
“I’m showing her things intentionally, because I want her to be exposed to what’s happening, but I want it to be age appropriate and I want to have a discussion afterwards,” she said.
The conversations she has had with her daughter have been difficult, but important.
“I think her questions have mostly been logistical. Why can’t the children come here? Where are the children’s mothers? Can we give them our food?” Pirzada said. “We went to a protest and she wanted to know if the little boy from the video was going to be there.”
Pirzada has not been worried about her oldest child experiencing Islamophobia at school because her child goes to a Muslim school. She is proud of the way her community has mobilized to help Palestinians in need.
“I feel in these moments, having other Muslim kids around, having your teachers be Muslim — they’ll do a bake sale on Fridays to raise money for Palestinian kids — it’s important,” Pirzada said.
Manal Hilaneh is a Palestinian-American restaurant owner and student with two children, ages 8 and 9. She and her family live in Washington, D.C., but she was born in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.
Hilaneh’s children were born in the United States and, unlike her, did not grow up with the Israeli occupation as an everyday fact of their lives. It is not a frequent topic at home.
“Usually I do not talk to them about it very much. They are busy with school. They are very involved in sports,” Hilaneh said.
In 2019, Hilaneh took her children to where she was born. Her family is Catholic, and she wanted her children to be baptized in the Jordan River. They were 4 and 5, perhaps not old enough to remember everything, but old enough to ask questions.
“The whole flight, I wondered how I was going to explain to them the soldiers or the checkpoints. How I was going to answer this question or that question,” she said.
In Jerusalem, the children saw soldiers carrying guns for the first time. Her son asked if the soldiers were catching bad guys.
“I had to explain that in Palestine, it is the opposite. The soldiers are the bad guys. They are occupiers. They aren’t supposed to be here. They put up obstacles for us. They limit freedom for us. I think it made him confused,” Hilaneh said.
Because of the Israeli occupation, the West Bank is riddled with checkpoints that restrict the movement of Palestinians. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are over 700 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank alone, as well as segregated roads for Palestinians and Israelis.
“My children saw people lining up through bars. It was like a cage. They saw soldiers treating people like cows,” Hilaneh said.
Even after thinking about it for so long, she struggled to explain the ordeal to her son.
“I told my son that in Palestine, we have to go through checkpoints. In America, we can go from Washington, D.C., to Virginia with no checkpoints. He was quiet. I could see in his face that he needed me to explain, and I couldn’t explain it,” she said.
Hilaneh is still glad she took her children to where she was born, despite the challenges.
“They went through some of the same struggles Palestinians experience. In a way I am happy they had the experience, so they will know,” she said.
Hilaneh has had a more difficult time explaining the recent war to her children. The first week, she felt so sick about the bloodshed that she could barely get out of bed. Her husband, who was born in America, picked up a lot of the parenting duties.
Eventually, she had to have a conversation with her children because of what they were hearing in the neighborhood from other kids and what those kids were hearing from their own parents.
“My daughter came home and told me a girl asked her if she was on the good side or the bad side. My daughter asked, ‘What is the bad side?’ And the girl said, ‘Your mom’s side is the bad side,’” Hilaneh said.
“Your mom is never on the bad side,” Hilaneh told her daughter. She reported the incident to the school, but administrators said there was nothing they could do because the conversations took place after school hours. The other girl’s mother deleted her from Facebook and barred her daughter from visiting their house.
“It’s unacceptable behavior,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
Mikey Franklin has two children, ages 7 and 4. He and his wife live in Silver Spring, Maryland. Franklin’s wife is originally from Ukraine, and he works as a lobbyist around issues involving Ukraine. He is, by his own description, “intensely, extremely Jewish.”
“We have a Jewish home. We celebrate all of the Jewish chagim [religious holidays]. Every week, my 7-year-old is in Hebrew school. We have a ton of Jewish books. We sing Jewish music. We are, to the very core of our kishkes [Yiddish for ‘guts’], Jewish,” Franklin said.
Franklin has cousins and close friends living in Israel, none of whom were directly impacted by the October 7 massacre.
“They are profoundly distressed about the future, but they are not in immediate jeopardy,” he said.
Franklin and his wife have had experience talking about difficult topics with their children prior to October 7. She left Ukraine when she was a child, as part of the international effort to save Soviet Jewry from communist persecution. Her father still lives there.
“The reason I bring that up is that we’re comfortable discussing hard things. We talk about the war [in Ukraine] with our kids. Obviously we don’t discuss every horrific thing in brutal detail, but we do talk about it,” Franklin said.
Franklin has had age-appropriate discussions with his children about what happened on October 7 and the Israel-Hamas war.
“We talk about how people are in danger. That people have been killed. That there is a war happening in Israel, Palestine, that different people have different perspectives.” People at his synagogue, he tells them, “feel very, very sad about the people who died in Israel. But we also talk about the people dying in Palestine, and that the reason they are dying is that they are being bombed by Israel. It’s important to respect other people’s perspectives and show empathy for everyone.”
Franklin recognizes that his perspective is not shared by everyone he goes to synagogue with. He caused a major stir on the synagogue’s listserv recently when he posted about a rally being held by IfNotNow, an American Jewish organization opposed to the occupation.
“It was an interesting set of responses. Some people thanked me in private. Some people sent public responses to the whole list saying I love Hamas. The president of the [synagogue] sent an email to the whole list reminding people what good listserv etiquette looks like and reassured me that I was not breaking it by sharing a communal event and that people were being disrespectful,” Franklin said.
He has tried to stress to his children that it is important to form their own opinions. Especially to his older daughter.
“We tried to explain to her that different people feel different ways.” Opinions she hears at synagogue “might be different than our values, which in turn might be different than hers,” he said. “Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say she’s staked out many opinions at this stage, except for against the existence of bedtime. But surely, it will come sooner or later. I can’t remember when I started disagreeing with my parents.”