One after the other we face terrorist atrocities and tragic loss of life spat at us from a cynical centrifugal force of hatred and violence that liquidizes our normal everyday existence into tumultuous upheaval and emotional fallout. What is this world that we bring our kids into? How do we keep them safe, how do we explain to their enquiring minds that bad things can happen and still try to keep them innocent and out of harm’s way? The hard facts of inhumane acts jangle in their faces, on their screens and on the streets. How can we shield them but not lie to them? How do we give them a way forward?
No matter how much we want to protect our kids, we can’t hide reality from them. Their minds are sharp, their antennae for truth on heightened alert; they see the world for what it is even when we try to draw a veil over it. They need to hear our truths about the ‘bad stuff’ or they make it up. And we don’t know what horror stories their little minds will conjure up if we don’t give them guidelines to negotiate the rough with the smooth. So when they ask you “are we going to die,” there are variations on the theme of existential reasoning with a five year old that we can muster that keeps them believing its worth learning their letters and numbers. Because the world isn’t going to collapse around their ears any minute now and the future is brighter for believing it will be. We all have to believe that, don’t we? Even though the absolute truth is, that it might bring disaster, and to some people it does. We might get on the wrong train, we might make way over the wrong bridge at the wrong time, and we might leave the wrong concert or walk the wrong street. And we may be mown down or blown up or shot to pieces. But that’s not the answer we give our kids of course. That truth is too true for their fragile flowering minds.
A version of the truth is the one we tell ourselves. It’s like this kiddo: bad stuff can happen but it’s not what we must focus our attention on.
Naturally, it is sensible to take precautions like not stepping out into the street in front of a car, or not drinking the toilet cleaner, but for the most part the best we can do is live in the present where on the whole bad stuff isn’t happening. And if it is, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Or rather: we cope, we get through it, we learn from it and we become better people for it. And in the meantime, keep future-thinking for dream-making not catastrophizing, and keep the present for enjoying the moment, appreciating the now and noticing the good stuff that happens.
When we were kids we used to play this game in the playground, whereby two kids linked armed and marched around shouting “join on for bombs” and slowly other kids would latch themselves onto the back until a long line would snake around the concrete yelling the mantra in unison. Now you can take that game one of two ways; either it is a cynical expression of how mindless humanity is in its ability to get behind an idea of violence. Or you can see how innocently (I hadn’t the faintest idea what ‘join on for bombs’ meant) kids can link arms, and join together under a common cause. And I think we, as adults, can encourage our kids to follow their natural instincts for the latter but show them how it can be used as a force for good.
We can point to the people that follow in the wake of bad things that happen; those who help the injured, who give sanctuary to the survivors, who call for peace not retribution. We can tell our kids to look to those who help, not those who harm.
And we join forces. We link arms with our community, we make connections with the world outside our own, we learn about people who are different from ourselves and we embrace that difference. We forgive, even if we can’t forget, because forgiveness releases us from our own anger and fear, and in so doing we create hope. We take action; we make good stuff happen because that is, ultimately, how we win.
The horror of these terrorist events goes beyond the carnage. It rocks us to our souls. And our kids feel those reverberations too. How do we heal those wounds that rip through the heart of what we believe to be humane? How can one human being unleash such horrific intent on the lives of others? It challenges us to our very core. How can we possibly explain that to our kids? In a sense, that is what religion is for; it simplifies the world to good and evil. ‘Those terrorists are evil, that’s what they do. We’re good, we don’t do that’.
But for those of us who aren’t religious but do have a grasp on spirituality, it feels much more complicated than that. We are all human; no one is born evil. And then, stuff happens and it how we respond to that stuff that determines how our lives develop. With kids is it better to stick to the simple, or to give them a more useful compass on which they can rely? Personally I believe we give them something that they can focus on within themselves. Something that can guide them through the bad stuff, something that they can refer to when they reach a crossroads in life, and when they have to make a choice. It is their values system. When we help them to know their values, they can, more easily, find their way. If one of their values is peace, then they are not going to meet violence with violence. If it’s tolerance, then they aren’t going to join in with a group who are name-calling with racist vitriol. If their value is kindness, when someone is hurt or sad, they will pull out all the stops to help them feel better. When they have their values in their life toolbox, they will not be swayed by the bad behaviour of others. Instead they will have the foundations for a life, even at five years of age that will help them past fear, past the Bad Stuff and towards resilience and sense of purpose.
Lou Hamilton is a Creative Well-Being Coach and Creator & Author of Brave New Girl – How to be Fearless published by Orion Spring. Brave New Guy is waiting in the wings.
Illustration at top by Lou Hamilton – ‘Find your way through shark-infested waters’