On the evening of November 13, 2015 a series of shootings, explosions, and hostage situations brought the city of Paris, France to its knees. The city of love was being held prisoner by hate and violence. I, on the other hand, was getting my three small children ready for bed: pulling jammies over freshly washed heads, brushing tiny white teeth, reading books about animals, and kissing chubby cheeks goodnight. My five-year-old was struggling with nightmares and while I held him tight and assured him that I would always protect him, my husband walked past the room and asked me whether I’d heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris that night. “What’s a terrorist?” My son asked sleepily, but I brushed the question aside with my kisses and swept it away behind dreams of dinosaurs and rocket ships.
My instinct as a mother drove me to shelter my innocent child from the harsh realities of political and religious hatred. However, the more I thought about the attack on Paris and the more I read about extremist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the more I realized that my instincts as a human being were urging me to find a healthy and productive way to talk to my children about terrorism. The conversation is important not because I fear for their safety living in a small midwestern US town, but because I despair for the state of mankind of which they will eventually be an important part. I believe the only way to put a stop to hate and violence is through understanding, and the key to understanding is information and education.
Fundamentalist groups like ISIS partly succeed because they are able to appeal to disaffected youths across the world by giving them purpose and meaning beyond their daily lives. For example, white supremacist groups have long targeted young men who feel ostracized by their peers. They are often floating on the margins of society, engaging in petty criminal behavior, and taking drugs, which makes them the perfect candidates for recruitment into what essentially boils down to a cult. At the heart of these terrorist groups are stories of scared, isolated, and resentful children being bullied because of their racial or religious differences. Eventually, some of them act out and will do anything to rationalize why their basic need to be loved wasn’t met. They feel they have already suffered, and it’s easier to believe that it was for a higher purpose.
In 1940, George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s Mein Kampf and noted that “socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
Humans are hardwired to seek out an in-group- a place where they can feel of value- which can be defined by any salient trait such as hobby, job, socio-economic status, race, nationality, or religion. This evolutionary adaptation is designed to draw humans into tight groups, foster cooperation among close neighbors, and promote safety in numbers. In other words, it is the birth of tribalism. However in a vastly cosmopolitan world, the need for traditional in-group dynamics are dwindling. The arbitrary barriers we put up between ourselves and our fellow humans are destroying our sense of a global community. As parents, we have an opportunity to combat the potentially dangerous effects of out-group isolation and oppression before they result in terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.
It’s time to teach our children to find beauty in their differences, encourage them to seek out new experiences, and learn from different viewpoints. They need to see the world in shades of grey rather than the simple black and white equation of us vs. them. We need to talk to our children about bullying early and often as they grow up. Members of terrorist groups are not created at age 18, but are cultivated by years of mistreatment and harvested from areas teeming with social tension. Hate is not an adult disease; it is something that takes root in children no older than mine are now.
We need to teach our children that anger and hatred only breed resentment, which is the formula terrorists use to fuel their fire. Instead of reacting to the news of attacks like those in Paris with anger and fear, we need to talk to our children about the overwhelming power of love and mercy. There is beauty that emerges from the wake of senseless destruction, and our children should witness the strength of a community that bands together after something like 9/11 or the Paris Terrorist Attacks. Amidst the headlines of death and fear coming from Paris that night, were inspiring tales of humanity like the #PorteOuverte twitter campaign to offer shelters to visitors who were stranded without a place to stay after the borders were closed.
I want to teach my children that when they see a person in need they should offer help, even when they’d rather hide their heads. If more people instilled this value in their children at a young age there would be fewer instances of bullying and hatred, and without a pool of malcontents from which to draw, these terrorist groups will whither and die. Zeal is a privilege of the young; there is great strength and numbers to be gained from appealing to a teenage boy’s hormonal need for belonging and acceptance. Offer him a scapegoat for his suffering and he will relish the sense of purpose that comes from suffering for a cause rather than on his own. However, without the history of feeling devalued by the those around him the prospect of dying for the glory of his cause seems suddenly less palatable.
We need to model for our children a deep appreciation for the universal nature of humanity, and help them fight their instinct to segregate themselves into smaller and smaller tribes. Studies show that when people are given a task to perform as a group, they rate the other members of their group as more likable, capable, and trustworthy than members of other groups. We need to highlight the struggles we all share as one world, and give our children a task to fight alongside their fellow man instead of against them. We need to use these opportunities to talk to our children about climate change, water shortages, and starving children. The more they see themselves as citizens of the world, the less likely they will be to persecute another child for the way they look or what they believe. Kindness breeds kindness.
It’s uncomfortable to talk to young children about the horrors of terrorism, but it is part of the reality of the world they now occupy. At least for now. Sheltering them from the truth will not give them the tools they need to fight the battle on their terms. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to fear for their lives at school, the theater, or a Parisian cafe. I never want them to feel the sting of social alienation, but more importantly, I never want them to inflict that pain on another person.
The political philosopher Edmund Burke once said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s time for us to take away the power these terrorist groups have by talking to our children about love in times of hate, empathy in the face of conflict, and strength to overcome fear.