The events in Paris are yet another tragedy, leaving parents to wonder what to say to our children or whether to say anything at all. Such horrific, inexplicable events seem to be way too much for such open hearts that are so inclined towards love. It’s heartbreaking really.
Sometimes we can’t control whether our children learn about the cold hatred and violence in the world. Maybe they see disturbing images on TV. Maybe they even experience it firsthand. But, more often than not, we can choose whether and how to buffer our children from the atrocities happening in far away lands. It’s a big responsibility, bearing witness to that human passage from innocence to experience.
When our family first moved to Nairobi, I felt we had no choice but to have some difficult conversations with our then four and six year olds. We needed to talk about robbers coming into our home or trying to steal our car while we were in it, and what we should all do. “Even though you might want to come to Mommy and Daddy, you should hide under your bed and stay there as quietly as possible until someone (other than the robber) tells you to come out.” You would think this would make them scared, but I spoke with calm, matter-of-fact direction, and I think they were comforted that I seemed to know what I was talking about.
It’s so true that children can handle information when it’s given in the right way. When there’s fear in your voice, they take the cue from you and feel afraid. When you speak with confidence and calm, they are reassured to know someone seems to be in control.
I was always amazed at how much my children could acclimate to our less-secure environment without being afraid. Children in most other countries around the world (and some neighborhoods within the U.S.) live with a much more present reality about potential crime. My children were more aware in Nairobi, but not really scared. Even after the Terrorist Attack in the Westgate Mall in 2013, my children could take in that something big and sad
happened, but they still felt safe at a basic level. They assumed it was robbers. There's logic to robbery.
Then came the day some older kids showed video footage of what really happened during the Terrorist Attack. That kind of graphic detail crossed a line, and the nightmares began. Learning the attackers weren’t robbers, that changed things, too. How do ANY of us integrate such horrific, senseless violence, let alone a child?
Perhaps the lesson is in the subtleties – like so many things in parenting. We’ll do well to buffer our children from graphic details when we can. Over-exposure can be harmful, fueling fearful imagination and undermining a child’s basic sense of security. When we are attuned to our children, we know what is too much for them.
But, helping our children to understand that something sad happened and that people got hurt – that seems important. If we are to raise conscious, compassionate children, they need to know that most people in the world live lives very different from our own. Through mindful and sensitive conversation, we can help our children develop global awareness. We can help them develop a capacity to be with suffering slowly in a sensitive and loving way.
To have those conversations successfully, without fear in our voices, first we need to be at peace with our own helplessness and confusion. We also need to trust that our children can be connected to world events in a way that’s appropriate to their age.
And when the difficult questions come, like “Why would anyone want to hurt someone else?”, we can face them head on. We can ask questions together, wonder why even we hurt other people sometimes, and explore some possible answers. These moments remind me of the honor in parenthood. The pivotal life questions call us to open our hearts with love, to share our wisdom with humility, and to give another, vulnerable human being permission to find his or her own answers.
As we sit here in our warm houses in our peaceful American neighborhoods watching the news, we have some degree of choice about what our children learn about Paris or Syria or Somalia. Like all parents in the world, we want to protect our children. We want to guard them from the knowledge of the inexplicable violence in the world.
My son no longer lets me. He asks about what’s happening in Syria if he catches a snippet from the news. He wants to know what “ISIS” is. I don’t want him to be scared, but I’m proud of him. I’m glad that he chooses to KNOW what’s happening in the world, even though he can easily forget and lose himself back in our warm house in our peaceful American neighborhood.
And so my children are going to know that something big and sad happened in Paris – that people got hurt, but also that there are a lot of people working to help them. My children know that there are people who are fighting in other countries, and some of those people go hungry or are getting hurt. And when my children and I talk about the fighting or the hurt people, our focus is on wishing that there be peace. Sending love. Holding out hope that all people may live feeling happy and safe. And then we talk about what we’re grateful for.
As difficult as these conversations can be, let our children find comfort in our prayer for compassion and in our gratitude. Let us find hope in their relentless, firm belief that love prevails.