A few weeks back, while watching the unity rally in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks with my sons, I got misty. When my 11-year-old asked why I was tearing up, I told him I was touched by the collective courage in the face of evil.
Many more questions later, my 9-year old son asked who all the heads of state were and why they were in black coats linking arms.
Still swooning, I respond, “To show their support for France and a free press.”
Then with typical scorched earth, pre-pubescent candor, my eldest cut to the core and the quick of the matter: “Well, do their countries have a free press?”
There are no greater discontents of sentimentality than little boys.
I didn’t feel I could answer that question so after some contemptuous eye rolling, I shook off the spontaneous bout of Francophilia, (abandoning the chevre crepe project on the stove), and looked it up.
We found that just about every government represented at that rally had, at some point, waged its own war on freedom of speech. British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the Guardian to smash with a hammer the hard drives that stored the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; a multiple of African and Arab leaders who have scores of journalists sitting in prisons while they marched self-righteously on the Place de la Republique; or Netanyahu, who has called for the shutting down of writers reporting on the Palestinian side; even Ireland, where blasphemy is still considered a crime.
Behind all of this lurked a nagging question for me: How do you balance the natural instinct to shield your children from the evils of the world while still adequately equipping them to navigate its most dangerous terrain. Especially because failure to do so can have real—and tragic—consequences.
Anderson Cooper got to the heart of it earlier this year when he asked Zarine Khan, a Chicago mother who discovered her son was radicalized online by ISIS. How could she have prevented her child from being recruited by terrorists, he asked, and “what message she has to other parents out there.”
Shattered, Khan lamented having “tried too hard to protect her children,” insisting that parents must “expose their children to what is going on in the world, help them develop critical thinking skills… to differentiate between the good and the bad guys.”
While Khan’s is an extreme example, her warning reiterates how the recent push to stop infantilizing our kids presents the intellectual opportunity and need to have more meaningful hard news conversations with them.
Trying to shelter post-9/11 Internet Age children from savagery IRL is a fool’s errand, akin to a McCarthy Era pretense, when storks delivered babies and before rock-n-roll shook up generations of American youth.
In a time when jihadists make teen movies with production values to rival Hollywood and first-graders practice hiding behind classroom cabinets while running “lockdown drills” in case of a school shooting, you could say kids over 8 are ready for another kind of “talk,” which can be even tougher than the birds and the bees.
Announcements of beheadings, “I Can’t Breathe,” and the bloody range of human horrors will casually slip into their worlds alongside a sunny replay of CR7’s latest hat trick, a trending iFunny, or at lunch hour, when Ebola and ISIS are sprinkled into the haute couture of “your mama” jokes and playground epithets.
Which brings me back to Zarine Khan: worst-case scenario, and heaven forbid, some lost lone wolves may even secretly act out all this morbid taboo.
While I certainly have no grand, sure-shot sure way to prevent the next copycat from cooking up a plot in his bedroom or packing her bags for the Turkish-Syrian border, the argument for exposing kids to bloody news is not unlike the bored immune system theory, which suggests early exposure to germs prevent the child’s body from mistakenly turning autoimmune wars on itself or waging battles on innocent peanuts.
To that end, Samantha Power sets an impressive example. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. recently told Glamour magazine she chooses not to hide the darkness of her job from her 2- and 5-year-old children. She said she finds their innocent perspective can be useful to seeing past the entrenched complexities of genocide and poverty. She recalls how her 5-year-old worried about the children on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq, who were stranded after fleeing ISIS over the summer. “He would ask if the kids were safe and whether he could share his water somehow with ‘the thirsty kids on the mountain’… In a way he holds me accountable to whether I’m succeeding.”
So, accepting that most American kids already have some notion, however vague or misguided, of terrorism in their world—how do we steer their understanding without further traumatizing them?
We could take a page from Pixar’s playbook: Start with everyday heroes.
After an hour of repetitive unity rally coverage, and once the 17th commentator came on handwringing about Obama’s no-show, my sons demanded we switch back to Batman.
But then a story came on that silenced their appeals. It was about Lassana Bathily, the African Muslim worker at the Paris kosher shop who risked his life to hide people in the freezer, including a baby. He narrowly escaped the gunmen through the freight elevator, only to be cuffed by police who initially mistook him for a conspirator until his valor was discovered and retweeted the world over.
“Mama, did he know those people he was hiding?” my older son asked.
“No,” I said.
“But he could have been killed?!”
That’s right, I replied.
“Why did he do that?”
“Why does Batman save strangers?”
A star-struck beat. Mouths agape. Remote untouched.
Then a small miracle in the next question: “Mama, can we print his picture and put it on the fridge?”
And so, we did, sticking Bathily’s picture next to an Avengers magnet, on the sliver of heavily zoned real estate between Cristiano Ronaldo, the grandparents, and Yoda.
The greatest thing about our family world news hangout came in the way of an impossible parenting triumph: I spent the first weekend morning in years on the couch, sipping latte and having a conversation that was interesting to everyone in the room.
I am not suggesting we inflict CNN in lieu of Saturday morning cartoons. But it wouldn’t hurt to take turns with the remote, now and then.