It’s a question our parents never faced, so it’s hard to know where to go for comfort. A generation ago there were unquestionably hard-to-digest things happening in the world—they have been since the world began. But random acts of terror, fear at the front door—these are a new phenomenon for this generation of parents. Lebanon, France, Russia. In the past week alone the footprint of terror has reignited fear, grief, and despair around the world in profound ways.
But what do we say to our kids?
I have pondered this question as I grapple with the tension between protecting my kids from what they shouldn’t have to face with the reality that this is the broken world we live in. The truth is nobody should have to face such depravity no matter what age. Yet there it is for all the world to see every time we look at a paper, turn on the TV, or surf the web.
My kids are eight years old. I have long considered them to be young for their age, meaning they have what I perceive to be an innocence, a naïveté, that distinguishes them from many of their peers. I suspect the biggest reasons for this are that my kids have very limited media exposure coupled with their own sort of “pack mentality” as triplets that defies typical categorization the way birth order is often played out in families. My kids have no older siblings to make them grow up quickly, nor do they have any younger siblings to encourage them to assume the role of leader. They are equals in every sense: completely unique individuals and yet inextricably tied to one another. They are each other’s gauge of what is common, expected, and timely for their age and stage of growth. The tight bond that began at conception has created a particular family dynamic which encourages each of them to look to their siblings for affirmation while simultaneously using the self as a gauge for how their siblings ought to be.
This circular system of affirmation has a certain insulating affect. While my kids all have healthy friendships with peers outside of our family, the norms developed within our family have an undeniably powerful influence. I find this a fascinating study in the power of the family unit, regardless of whether siblings are multiples. But as it relates to talking to my kids about acts of terror around the world, it helps me to be aware that the way I talk needs to be informed by the way I have historically encouraged them to interact with the world. At age eight I do not think it wise to completely shelter them from the reality of evil, pain, and fear in the world. But I do believe that innocence need not be shattered simply to give them a dose of the real world. Honestly, the real world is all there is when it comes to walking out our days. Being a child in elementary school is no less real than being an adult working a full-time job for a demanding boss. Real is what we touch and feel, what we breathe and see and know. Real, for my kids, is going to school, learning that second grade requires a little more work and a little less play than first grade, and coming home for dinner and family time. That’s real. That’s what we walk out, and what we talk about.
Terror in the world is real too. The havoc it wreaks is real and the scars it leaves behind are too. But it’s not the only real. This I must remember when I go to talk to my kids about suicide bombers or exploding passenger planes. This September my husband and I explained to our kids for the first time what happened on 9/11. We showed them video footage and we talked about hate and fear, evil and innocence, and love. We had to answer “I don’t know” to a lot of their questions. They are questions we seek the answers to still. I’m sure we didn’t do it perfectly, but we did something. We started the conversation. We made talking about it one less thing to fear.