Updated: Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 4:57 PM
Now is not the time for silence or looking the other way.
That is the advice of experts to parents trying to help their children process recent reports about expressions of hate and bigotry.
Toppled gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, and reported increases in bullying, on top of news about immigration restrictions and overheated political rhetoric, have left many people feeling unwelcome and at risk. The recent rollback of federal guidance on restrooms for transgender students has added to the distress.
"Parents need to talk through these things because kids are listening [to news reports] even if it may seem they aren't," said Janet Rosenzweig, executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
"This is such an opportunity for parents."
In particular, said Rosenzweig, a social worker and Bucks County resident, this is a good time to encourage empathy in adolescents. It's a trait that needs to be nurtured and developed in youths whose brains are still developing, and who face peer pressures that may counter values they learn at home.
"We have to stand up and talk: 'Our family does not act that way, our family does not talk that way,' " she said.
Anita Kulick, president of Philadelphia-based Educating Communities for Parenting, agreed that adults need to give firm guidance.
"I feel it needs to be discussed. It's out there everywhere — Muhammad Ali's son being stopped at an airport" and asked if he is Muslim, Kulick said. "If we don't say something, it's almost like you're condoning it."
Some children who feel personally affected need to have those feelings addressed, she said.
For Jewish children, for example, she said, elders should speak frankly about history and heritage. The Passover story is one of slavery and deliverance, one most Jewish children, even those who not particularly religious, are at least somewhat aware of. Even people who don't mean harm can say hurtful or insulting things, she said.
"People are afraid of what they don't know and they don't understand," Kulick said. "It's a fact of life."
Some educators say these times, as upsetting as they are, can provide teachable moments.
Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, an eighth-grade teacher at Welsh Valley Middle School in Lower Merion, said she has been having her students talk about events in the news, examining the facts and expressing their feelings. As an assignment, she asked the children to create positive signs dealing with acceptance and mutual support.
"We all breathe a little easier knowing we are surrounded by allies," Arnold-Schwartz said. "Kids need to see adults modeling that sweeping hate crimes under the rug does not make them go away, and it certainly doesn't make scared or confusing feelings disappear."
Sherman Leis, founder of the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery in Bala Cynwyd, said he has found that transgender children appear to be finding support and acceptance among their school peers.
However, he said, parents may need to meet with administrators and school counselors, especially if a child is just beginning to come out about gender identification, to make sure the school community supports him or her.
"The attitude starts at the top," he said.
Especially for young children, part of the message needs to be that they are safe and not alone.
Robin Axelrod Sabag, assistant director of Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Philadelphia's counseling and therapeutic services, said adults speaking to children upset by recent anti-Semitic acts should try to stay calm while they allow youngsters to express their feelings. Provide age-appropriate but honest information, she said, and give reassurance that the larger community is working to keep them safe.
W. Douglas Tynan, director of integrated health care for the American Psychological Association, said children can be reminded that recent bias acts are the work of bullies whom many more people are fighting against.
Said Tynan: "Let children know that the overwhelming majority of a very diverse Philadelphia community are on their side. Those people causing the problems are a small group of bullies who will not succeed."
Read full story: Experts: Talk to kids about bigotry and hate crimes