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Don't Passover the Tough Ones

Don't Passover the Tough Ones

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As parents, it is our instinct to shield our children from recounts of tragedy and hardship. I recently found myself in one of these "Shh! The kids are around" moments during a whirlwind lunch at the Atlanta Airport.

My children and I had made the trek to Hartsfield to meet up with my cousin, Nancy, and her two girls, who were in town on a brief layover on their way home to Washington, DC. As the kids talked Gameboys and Pokemon cards, Nancy and I tried fruitlessly to fit a year's worth of catching up into an hour long pow-wow in Terminal C.

Suddenly Nancy paused. "I can't be in the Atlanta airport without having flashbacks," she whispered.

"I know," I replied.

My son listened in wide-eyed silence as I recounted the story"Why, what happened at the airport?" asked my second grader, who was clearly less engrossed in his greasy pizza and Gameboy/Pokemon discussion than we'd taken him to be.

"Nothing!" Nancy and I responded in maternal unison.

Before Jake could round up a counter-argument, one of the kids spilled an ice-cold drink all over everyone at the table, and that was the end of that. Or so I thought. At dinner that evening, Jake hit me up again.

"What was Nancy talking about?" he asked with enough tenacity this time to assure me he would not let up until I told him. And so, maternal instinct swept aside, I did.

My son listened in wide-eyed silence as I recounted the story of the day - when Jake was only two - that Nancy was at the Atlanta airport, just like she was today, on her way back home to Washington, DC.

I told him how she was waiting to board her flight when she saw the first plane – then the next - hit the Twin Towers on CNN. The Twin Towers – the place my Uncle Marty – Nancy's father - had gone to work that morning, as he had every morning for more than a decade, on the sixty-second floor.

I told him about how - as if in an over-the-top horror movie – the television screen showed another plane hitting the Pentagon. The Pentagon... the place Nancy's husband Scott had gone to work that bright, clear morning of September 11th, 2001.

I told Jake about how Grandpa had found Nancy crying in the arms of a security guard at the airport. And how we'd cried too. And then some more, after Nancy received a phone call from Scott, and then – many hours later – from her father, my Uncle Marty.

That's when the questions started pouring in. Not only from Jake, but from his older brothers who knew the story well. I explained how Scott had been working in a different part of the Pentagon from where the plane hit and was able to escape quickly. And how Uncle Marty, a physician, was in the lobby of the Marriott (which was connected to the North and South Towers) caring for the injured when the buildings fell. I told them how he'd fallen through the floor and broken his rib, and how the firemen helped him find his way through pitch darkness to safety.

Like the story of 9/11, the story of Exodus is an account of great sufferingI told my children about the thousands of people who were not as lucky as Uncle Marty and Scott. And how much their families must miss them as they work to rebuild their lives. I kept telling and they kept asking until one of the kids spilled an ice-cold drink all over everyone at the table, and that was the end of that.

Which brings me back to Passover. Like the story of 9/11, the story of Exodus is an account of great suffering and evil. Yet our forefathers didn't feel pangs of guilt over speaking of adversity with their children. They didn't feel compelled to dance around their kids' curiosity with sugar-coated answers and changes of subject. Rather, they decreed that this story of hardship - built upon children's questions, to boot - be passed down from generation to generation.

Clearly our ancestors instinctively knew what a widening pool of post 9/11 research, like that being conducted at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory University, now convincingly reveals: that while happily-ever-after stories are nice indeed, stories of family and community hardship give children the wisdom and perspective they need to thrive in a rocky, unpredictable world.

The message children take away from tales of tough times, say these researchers, is not one of cowardice – I'm never going to fly on a plane or go to New York City or practice Judaism in the presence of anti-Semitism again. But one of resilience and perseverance. Yes, bad things happened to my family, to my people. But we righted ourselves. We did not lose our way. We bounced back. So, too, can I.

Clearly we should always present difficult information to children in an age-appropriate manner. And be prepared for them to feel a bit unsettled – even frightened – by these truths (especially when the events transpired in contemporary times). But by letting go of the erroneous belief that it is our parental duty to gloss over all adversity for our kids, we help them grasp the inevitable zig-zag nature of life. By sharing our stories with them – the happy, the sad, the old, and the new – we keep our children rooted in the longstanding tradition of strength and survival that we renew each year at our Passover Seder.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah (Broadway Books, 2007) is available everywhere books are sold.
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