Finding Hope in Community

Becoming a parent is one of the most fundamentally hopeful moments many of us experience. A new baby is an embodiment of potential, a fragile affirmation of the world, not as it is, but as it could be. Though children function almost entirely in the present moment, we can’t help but hold onto the imagined thread that ties each interaction with them to the future. Teachers, too, are rooted in hope–in the belief that, through our work with children, we can repair the world proactively.

The very personal stake in the future that parents and teachers share also makes us vulnerable. Our hopes and dreams reside in others; it is as if our hearts walk through the world outside our own bodies, and as a result we feel both the joys and sorrows of life with a particular rawness. Existing in this hyper vulnerable state can flood us with the deepest feelings of love and gratitude in happy times and can also be uniquely destabilizing in anxious times.

The constant flow of news in our 21st century lives, combined with the particular instabilities of the current social and political climate, present heightened challenges. When we are bombarded by headlines that lead us to question the safety of everything from the food we eat to the spaces in which we learn and worship, it is easy to find ourselves feeling unmoored in our responsibilities as parents and educators.

Hannah Arendt explains that it is our job as adults to take responsibility for a world we did not make and of which we may disapprove, while at the same time loving the world enough to continue to bring children into it. She reminds us that children need to be protected from the world even as we prepare them to navigate and renew it. So how do we nurture children’s engagement with a world that tempts us to keep them forever removed from it, tucked under our safe wing?

Teachers, at every level of education, talk a great deal about the importance of creating classrooms and campuses that are “safe spaces.” And yet we are often at odds over what defines a safe space. Following the recent violence in Tribeca, two teachers shared experiences that renewed my own sense of what a safe learning space ought to be. It must not be sterile but rather a space in which children are able to explore and express all aspects of their engagement with the world, no matter how messy or conflicting, and to feel deeply personally invested and supported in that work.

In one of our older classrooms, a child drew and shared with her teachers a picture that vividly depicted the violence of the previous night. By exploring a very frightening experience in the world with an unfiltered lens, through her drawing, this child let her teachers know, not only what she was thinking about, but also that she felt safe enough to express these scary thoughts in her classroom. She knew that even her most overwhelming ideas and feelings would be allowed and valued.

Later the same day, another teacher shared a very different but equally important experience. She was struck by the potential for the expression of deep joy among children, even in the aftermath of crisis. She spoke of the simple delight the children in her class took in the fall leaves–gathering them up, throwing them in the air, and jumping into them gleefully. Even while our adult eyes were still nervously scanning the police barricades and glancing at our security officers for reassurance, she watched children embracing the world with both hands. She described her tremendous sense of gratitude for the way in which her role as a teacher allowed her to safeguard these spaces of joy and engagement for children.

At its best, a strong community offers us a place to feel safe and hopeful, not because we are invulnerable, but because we are together. In the company of friends and adults they trust, children are able to share and process the full range of their experience, from the most frightening to the most joyful, and to continue moving forward. Even as we occasionally feel powerless to control the threats at our doorstep, let us remember the lessons our children teach us about how we can take refuge in one another. As psychologist, Edward Hallowell, reminds us, “We all need help in bolstering our little boats. And we need help in gaining perspective on the largeness of the sea.”

Resources for Parents

Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Kenneth R. Ginsburg
The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness by Edward M. Hallowell
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
The Fred Rogers Company: Tragic Events
Healthy Children: Talking to Children about Tragedies and Other News Events
Mental Health America: Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety

Resources for Children

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
I Will Keep You Safe and Sound by Lori Haskins Houran
Something Might Happen by Helen Lester
Bear Feels Scared by Karma Wilson
Safe, Warm, and Snug by Stephen Swinburne
Sesame Street Toolkit: Resilience
Sesame Street Toolkit: Support After an Emergency

Alicia Stoller is the Director of JCP’s Early Childhood Center.