Why do our kids think we know everything about everything? Can I just tell you right now that I know next to nothing about space, including which suns or moons rotate around which planets (or is it the planets that do the rotating)! This means that I don’t remember why it’s winter in New Zealand when it’s summer here in San Francisco (that feels like winter), or why it’s a different time here than in the Middle East. I also don’t know how electricity works, so I cannot explain to my son how, when he plugs in the light, it turns on. In case you’re wondering (like my 10-year-old), I also can’t recall who the Californios were, and how they petitioned for Ranchos.

Yesterday, however, my son asked me something seemingly simple that I thought I could answer – but then I wasn’t so sure. He asked me what “boycott” means.

I was raised among left-wing union workers, alternative healthcare practitioners, writers and other revolutionaries, if you will, so I know what a boycott is. And when I was a little girl, right and wrong were very black and white. Even before I knew what a boycott was, I knew that it was good, and that the entity being boycotted was bad.

But then I grew up and, along with every other simple concept, boycott became much more nuanced. What I had once seen in crisp, clear black and white now morphed into much murkier shades of gray.

The train home from San Francisco yesterday was crowded, and my son hesitated to sit in the seats near the door, reserved for older people, and people with disabilities. I assured him that it was fine. If someone got on who needed the seat, we would offer it to them.

A few minutes later an older woman, probably in her 80’s, stepped onto the train. We immediately stood up and offered her our seat, and she happily sat down. And then after the next stop when a single seat became available across the way, she moved and gestured to us to sit back down together in our two original seats. She smiled and was very kind.

My son and I began talking about his upcoming orthodontist appointment and how he was dreading it, and then he turned to me and asked, “Ima, what does “boycott” mean?” (“Ima” is Hebrew for mother, and what my boys call me.)

I looked around, wondering where he’d seen the word, and my eyes landed on the woman we had been playing musical chairs with. She was clad from head to toe in clothing decorated with Palestinian flags, and her shirt read “Boycott Israel!”

My mind raced back to a few hours prior when my family of five was sitting in the Israeli Consulate, and my head felt like a ping-pong ball being lobbed back and forth between the security officer and my children.

“Do you have anything in your bag that could be used as a weapon?” he asked.

“Why would we have a weapon?” the boys looked at us.

“Please come in. Open your bag. Walk through the metal detector. Please place your cell phones in this bag. They will be here under this security camera when you exit, so no one will take them.”

“Why can’t you bring your phones in?”

“Please step up to the window?”

“Why are the tellers behind bullet-proof glass?”

“Thank you. You’re all done. Press the button on the wall, and someone will let you out.”

“Why can’t we just open the door?”

And on and on.

I did answer their questions, but the most important thing I think I said was this: The bad news is that if someone is really determined to hurt someone else, there is always a way to do it. But the good news is that most people are friendly and have good intentions, so mostly that doesn’t happen.

And now, as if sent to challenge my parenting abilities, appeared this woman who was boycotting the country we just celebrated becoming citizens of over a dim-sum lunch in Chinatown. (The kosher discussion we’ll leave be for the time being, but for the record, we do shrimp, but not pork.)

I turned to my son and blurted out some dictionary definition of boycott having something to do with a political decision not to buy goods produced in certain places. He looked me in the eye and asked why the woman had a shirt on that said, “Boycott Israel”.

“It’s complicated,” I said, wondering whether she would have beamed her bright smile our way if she had known about our morning adventure and subsequent celebration.

I explained, yet again, as much of the politics as I could put into 10-year-old terms, and then repeated the same thing I had told him earlier. But this time I added my belief that when people get to know one another – when they have human interactions with one another like offering each other seats on a train, they begin to discover one another’s humanity. And only when we become open to the fact that everyone has a story, and we get glimpses of each other’s goodness can we begin to build the bridges between us.

Our children have a way of forcing us to dig deep into ourselves and figure out what we really stand for. I want to stand for possibility, for without it, what’s the point?

What questions have your children challenged you with, and what deeper truths have those questions forced you to confront? Please share below – respectfully, of course 🙂