Helping Children Understand Injustice

During these turbulent times there have been a number of disturbing firsts.  Children are seeing other children detained in cages at no fault of their own. School shootings are on the rise and students are feeling unsafe in their classrooms and environments. Children are witnesses to behavior that is stretching the bounds of good taste in the public discourse. Boundaries of civility are being crossed that we may never get back to. How do we as a society set a moral tone for our children in light of the above? How do we help our children mature into their moral maturity and reconcile with the pain that comes with the act of living?  These are the million dollar questions for any age. Implicit in these questions is the fact that injustice brings with it unspeakable pain and suffering.

Children are smarter than you think. They can pick up on things often missed by adults.  They know injustice when they see it and explaining that to them is difficult. It is a task that needs to be addressed nonetheless. Growing up and discerning right from wrong is critical in life. Sometimes the boldness of evil comes at us in the most disconcerting ways, and we are blindsided by it.

The film “Life Is Beautiful” addressed this quandary in a unique way.  Roberto Benigni plays a father who is trapped in the ghetto and attempting to escape from the Nazis.  His son is too young to understand what is happening so he contrives to save his son’s life by making the boy perceive life as a game and to recognize the beauty of life even in the harshest of conditions.  When a Nazi soldier is rounding up Jews and the father is trying to hide and keep the boy quiet, he tells them that they are playing “hide and seek.” He finds creative ways to shield the boy from harsh realities while also saving their lives.

I recently saw the moving documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In the first week of filming the show, Rogers addressed the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Meow Meow Pussycat asks one of the hosts “What is assassination?”

Rogers was not afraid to address the realities of life with children in a manner that was quiet and understated, but honest and true nonetheless. He addressed these issues out of necessity.  He knew that children would grow up encountering them in their lives and worked on preparing for that inevitability. At one point during the film Rogers says that we need to remind children that there are people there to help them through the process and help them to understand that they are protected to the best of their ability.

Although parents may have good intentions, denying the act of pain and suffering in a child’s life is setting them up for disaster. I taught theology for a number of years and a student revealed to me that her parents told her she wouldn’t have to suffer in life.  It was like Siddartha’s father telling him he would not have to encounter pain and suffering and shielding his son from the realities only to have his son escape the palace walls and venture into the world to discover it for himself.

It was a challenge as a teacher to let her down easy to help her realize that pain and suffering was part of the experience of life that people need to make peace with this reality and seek the power of hope, and our moral decisions helps lessen the pain in this world. Like Mr. Rogers, I found myself gently asserting the message that suffering is a part of life and even Jesus suffered in the name of redemption. But Jesus’ message of morality lightened the load of suffering. There is power in knowing that there are coping mechanisms at our disposal and people with whom to share our pain.

Pastors are the key in helping to bring healing awareness to our society. I found myself developing exercises to help her own her feelings and identify her own suffering in ways she may not have considered.  When we recognize our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual anguish, we can allow Christ in to help us cope. I was also able to help her recognize the power of the presence of Christ in being a healing agent for the suffering. Once she understood that it was inevitable, she was able to honestly seek out coping mechanisms that worked for her in addressing reality.

At the end of the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers tells the story about his mother addressing the harsh realities of life.  Rogers notes that her words of wisdom always stayed with him.  She said, “In the most dire circumstances, always look for the helpers in any given situation.” Roger’s mother taught him to look for the gift of hope wherever and whenever he needed it. It’s a lesson worth noting in addressing the needs of our children in these turbulent times. For times like these we should all be looking for the example of Jesus.


What are some of your most poignant coping mechanisms in addressing suffering?

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