How should we explain terrorist acts to our children?

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Our world can be a harsh place. As a parent, there are times when our natural reaction is to cover our children’s eyes and ears and shield them from the wrongs and injustices of life. But is it always right to wrap them up in cotton wool?

In some aspects of life, it’s an easy decision. Not many parents are going to allow a young child to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or read them 50 Shades of Grey as a bedtime story.

But what about the kind of real world events we watch or read about in the news? How do we tell them about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad – if we tell them at all?

I don’t pretend for one minute that there is one right answer. Or that my method of handling it is better than anyone else’s. It’s a personal choice – one of those things where I firmly believe a parent has to follow their own gut instinct and not the example prescribed by others – and a reaction that will be governed primarily by the age and maturity level of your children.

But I do believe it’s important not to keep children entirely in the dark. Having been through this process with my kids today, here are a few thoughts on the subject.

1. Decide whether you’re going to tell them up front or wait for them to broach the topic – but either way watch and listen to their responses. Personally, I found it easier to wait for them to ask the first question rather than force the topic upon them. Then I allowed them to push the discussion as far and as fast as they were comfortable with.

There are plenty of visual and verbal cues that indicate when they’ve lost interest or are finding the discussion too uncomfortable to deal with. At that point, it’s time to stop and not force the issue too much. There’s informing your children and then there’s traumatising them.

2. Different conversations for different children. If you have multiple children, be aware of their differing intellectual and emotional capacities. It’s hard to pitch one conversation at the right level for everyone.

In the end, I was spared this dilemma fairly quickly. Isaac was the only curious one, which meant we could have a separate one-on-one discussion. Toby was only superficially interested – once I had reassured him that the Eiffel Tower was still intact (he has a thing for French buildings), his focus drifted. And Kara spotted some shiny Christmas baubles and was lost immediately.

3. Seek to understand. There are two sides to every story. And while I struggle to understand why anyone would strap on a suicide vest and seek to kill innocents, there is a reason why people carry out such apparently senseless acts. Understanding is the first step to resolution.

Unfortunately, there are too many people who are too quick to enforce their personal world-view and see the world only in shades of black or white, right or wrong. The real world is never that simple. Acknowledging that is the first step to understanding.

4. Avoid sweeping generalisations. It is all too easy to tar an entire population with the same brush. Not all refugees are terrorists. There is a distinction between religion and radicalisation. I think the following statement sums it up perfectly.

ISIS are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan are to Christianity.

In my experience, children can be surprisingly quick to grasp the fact that the world isn’t always a simple place. Indeed, if anything, they are less prone to make generalisations about things than adults because they don’t have the experience from which to form such generalisations and jump to the type of book-by-its-cover conclusions that us adults naturally do.

5. Get your facts right. Finally, and most importantly, it’s our responsibility as parents to pass on accurate information from which to make their own choices. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then ignorance is doubly so.

The following tweet went viral last night in response to a sizeable, vocal and ignorant minority who were all too quick to point the finger of blame at refugees.

While there may or may not be a grain of truth to claims that ISIS have been smuggling their agents in among the refugee population, this is a gross generalisation – and it is not an argument that can be used to explain the suicide attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. But it hasn’t stopped an ignorant few from attributing all the blame in this direction anyway.

The combination of points three to five sum up why I personally consider it important for my children to understand as much as they are capable of handling about the tragic events of the past few days – although I will let them determine where the line needs to be drawn.

The whole point of terrorism is as a mechanism by which a small minority can breed fear in the overwhelming majority. But it is ignorance and misinformation that act as catalysts for that fear to spread, resulting in the kind of simplistic, bigoted responses that foster intolerance, division and an escalating spiral of violence. That is the real enemy, as much as a terrorist carrying a Kalashnikov or wearing a bomb vest is.

Should we protect our children from the horrors of our world? Yes, to a degree. But do we really want them to grow up in total ignorance? Not me. Where you draw that line on the spectrum between too much information and none at all is entirely up to you.

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