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How much to talk to kids about terrorism
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Generally speaking, kids are better protected by knowledge than by fear. - photo by Linda and Richard Eyre
The day after the Paris terrorist attacks last month, our little 11-year-old niece posted a heartfelt pray for Paris message on her Instagram account under a picture of the Eiffel Tower.

This past week, after the San Bernardino attacks, we asked the 15-year-old son of some friends what he thought about ISIS. He answered, What is ISIS?

Some kids are very aware of terrorism and of the news coverage of terrorist acts; other kids are completely unaware. Which is best?

Do we want to protect our children from accounts and images of terrorism? Or is it an important part of their education to know what is going on in the world?

Are too much awareness and too little awareness both potential problems? And do we have to find a middle ground and a balance?

On the one hand, we want to buffer our kids against things that might upset them or worry them unduly. But on the other hand, we would rather be their source on troublesome things, with our own filters and our own context, than have them hear frightening things from their peers or the media, or find them on the Internet.

Personally, we find ourselves wishing that news outlets would stop playing into the terrorist scenario by covering terrorist acts 24/7 for weeks on end.

So for what its worth, here are some thoughts on the dilemmas it may cause with our kids.

First of all, little children, lets say those under 8, usually dont need to know about things like terrorist attacks. There may be some exceptions, and when they ask a direct question, parents need to deal with it. But in most cases, little kids do not need to be aware of the news, particularly news that could scare them.

Pre-adolescents, on the other hand, and certainly adolescents and teens cannot be protected from prominent news stories. And its not always good to wait until they ask questions to talk to them about something like terrorism. Our goal should be to give them accurate information about things we know they will hear about anyway, but to do it in a low-key and reassuring way a conversational way.

Parents can ask them what they have heard and what they think about it. Parents can assure them that terrorist acts affect a tiny, tiny percentage of people and that they are not in any personal danger. We can then make it a teaching discussion by asking them things like Why do you think these people would do something like that? We can help them think it through and, depending on their age, discuss the possible economic and political factors that may cause the disaffection and alienation that could lead to radicalization.

Generally speaking, kids are better protected by knowledge than by fear.

Consider three cases in point: A child afraid to climb on playground equipment or up a tree because his parent has told him so often that he could fall and get hurt. Or a child who wont look at or talk to adults because her parent has told her kidnapping stories or warned excessively of stranger danger. Or a new bride who has a hard time with marital intimacy because a parent has scared her about the dangers or exploitation of sex.

Perhaps the parents in all three cases loved their children so much that they were trying desperately to protect them. But wouldnt it have been a better and more wholesome kind of protection to show that first child how to climb, or teach that second child that there are a thousand good adults who will help you for every one who will hurt you; or explain to the third child how wonderful sex can be at the right time with the right person?

The same kind of knowledge-protects-better-than-fear principle applies to the question of how to communicate about terrorism. We want to create an openness with our upper elementary and teenage children where they know they can trust us and that we will give them accurate information, answer their questions and discuss troubling things with them in a reassuring way.

When something happens that we know they will hear about at school or from friends or the media, we may want to pre-empt all those other sources by bringing it up with them first, mentioning what happened and where, and reassuring them that it took place far away and that they are in no personal danger. Assure them again that for every violent person who would do something like that, there are thousands of good people who would do almost anything to stop it and who would try to help anyone in danger.