Recently, a Rethinking Schools editor was a chaperone on a field trip when he overheard a 2nd-grade student talking about how he wanted to “nuke the world.”
Taken aback, he asked the child what he meant.
“Everything is just so bad. We should just nuke the world and start over.”
When pressed further, the student mentioned Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. The editor was left wondering how an 8-year-old even knew the name of the leader of North Korea. And he not only knew the names of these world leaders, but knew enough about the current climate to feel hopeless, and to channel that hopelessness into a broad and dramatic wish for destruction.
We live in an increasingly turbulent time, and it can feel intimidating or inappropriate to discuss the world’s crises with young children. How can you explain climate change, tensions with North Korea, or the war in Syria to an 8-year-old? After all, most adults don’t even fully understand many of the complex issues affecting our world. Is it responsible to even try?
Yet this story about the 8-year-old who wanted to nuke the world reminds us that we aren’t protecting children by not engaging them in conversation around these topics. If done in a developmentally appropriate manner, even the youngest children deserve to learn about and discuss such questions.
Young children live in the world, just like we do. They listen to snippets of news reports on the radio; they catch clips of news broadcasts on the television; they hear things from their siblings, parents, and classmates. They watch movies and play video games that encode social tensions and global conflicts. And most importantly, in this time of intense political upheaval, they feel the stress and anger that adults around them are feeling. For many children, poverty, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria have a daily impact on their lives. When we choose not to deal with these issues explicitly and sensitively, we effectively leave children alone with their misunderstandings and fears.
So what is the alternative? We need to listen to children’s questions and respect them, even if our responses are imperfect. Can a kindergartener fully grasp the science behind climate change? No, but they can understand in broad strokes that human action — our use of cars and planes and big machines — is causing our world to heat up and is threatening animals’, plants’, and people’s homes and well-being. Can a 3rd grader fully comprehend the politics behind Trump’s calls for a border wall and mass deportations, and the groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment backing them? Eight-year-olds won’t be able to draw the same historical parallels that high schoolers or adults might, but they can understand how fear and racism can cause people to lash out at those who are different from them — and to selfishly guard what they think of as their own.
Sometimes we may not feel like we understand something well enough to explain it to our students. What if our students ask questions about Kim Jong-un that we ourselves don’t know the answers to? What if we stumble when we try to explain the tangled web of conflict that has resulted in the flood of refugees out of Syria? We have to do our research and provide students with the most accurate explanations possible, but we shouldn’t be afraid to explore these topics ourselves and invite our students to explore with us. We can recognize imperfect and incomplete explanations and understandings as a necessary part of teaching and learning.
Of course we can and should use discretion about the resources we show to children; certain pictures, videos, and stories can clearly be too graphic and too disturbing. It’s up to teachers to know their students and make judgments about how much is too much. It’s also up to teachers to inform and involve parents in this process, without allowing individual parents to dictate what should be taught in school based on their own biases or prejudices. This is a delicate balance. Teachers have used homework assignments in which students ask parents what they think of some of these issues as a way to inform and connect with parents about the curriculum and to encourage multiple perspectives on such topics. The more we, as teachers, build strong ties to our families and communities — and reach out to and collaborate with colleagues — the more able we are to provide our students with a safe, respectful environment to tackle these challenging subjects.
Our job also goes beyond providing summary explanations to students. Simply telling children “how things are” can lean toward indoctrination, imposing on them our worked-out conclusions about the world. Young children learn best by acting out the world around them, by putting themselves in other people’s shoes. We see this when Cami Touloukian, in “Love for Syria,” gives her students the chance to understand the roots of the refugee crisis through a personal experience of unfairness. We also see it when Rowan Shafer has her students take on roles and present a wide variety of perspectives on climate change. As teachers, we choose whose voices we privilege, whose stories we put center stage. We can repeat the narratives of the powerful, or we can give students the chance to see the world through the eyes of the people who are most vulnerable, and those who are trying to work for justice.
Students deserve the opportunity to try to look at Syria through the eyes of a refugee, at the border wall through the eyes of an undocumented child, at climate change through the eyes of a person in the Marshall Islands watching their home disappear — and also from the perspective of those who spend their lives advocating for their communities and trying to make things better.
This kind of teaching, where children explore the world through taking on roles, is developmentally appropriate and engaging. It also lays the foundation for a pattern of inquiry that we hope they will continue to return to throughout their lives. When confronted with a complex and contentious issue, we hope students will ask: Whose story is not being told? What does this look like from a different perspective? What is fair? How can everyone’s needs be met? What can I do?
When we teach in this way, we cultivate empathy, especially for those who are different from us. To paraphrase writer Alfie Kohn, educators should help children locate themselves in widening circles of empathy that extend beyond self, beyond country, to all humanity. Today, that is more important than ever. In the time of Trump, we are told that America should come first, implying that the lives of U.S. citizens are more valuable than the lives of others. We are told that we should want to build walls and enforce immigration bans to block off people who are not like us. And if we lose sight of empathy, we can end up feeling just like the 2nd grader who wants to “nuke the world” — that there is no hope for humans, that there is no way back from this dark place we find ourselves in. We owe it to our students, perhaps especially the youngest among them, to resurrect the culture of empathy. We do this by listening to their concerns, trying our best to respond to their questions with respect and compassion, and teaching them to push for a world where everyone’s life is valued.