Children's hands create a heart. Terrorism denied

For the victims of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch

Just as my sons’ school assembly was closing on Friday (two weeks ago now), the Principal told the student leaders he would like to address the children.  He looked somberly at the rows of parents sitting at the back of the hall saying, “I don’t know if you’ve heard about the events in Christchurch…”, as a brief explanation of what was to come.  We hadn’t heard and resisted the temptation to get our phones out there and then to find out what it was that he was referring to.  He didn’t announce what had happened but briefly spoke to the children about diversity, pointing out the range of nationalities and races represented in our own school hall, and how, as a school, we value inclusion and kindness.  It was a short and heart-felt moment but I wondered what on earth had happened to prompt it.

Once I found out the news that a man had open-fired in two Christchurch mosques in the name of white supremacy, killing 50 people, I was in horrified shock.  And my heart ached. Firstly for the victims and the community of people the attacks were aimed at.  Secondly for New Zealanders – all New Zealanders – who, until then, had felt safe in the knowledge that “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here”.  This essay, is about how I approached talking to my children about what had happened.

SHOULD I TELL MY KIDS?

You may know from my previous essays that I think it’s important not to over-protect our children. Not letting them experiences the realities of life as children, steals from them the opportunity to learn attitudes and skills that will help them to navigate future challenges.  I consider it my job to equip my boys as best I can to deal with whatever may happen – practically, mentally and spiritually – but to do so according to their readiness.

I didn’t want to tell them about the Christchurch shootings.  I worried that I would be pulling their sense of safety and their ability to trust others from underneath them.  I didn’t want to leave them feeling vulnerable and insecure.  I admit I was tempted not to say anything – they’re so young, they don’t need to know, I thought – but I knew they’d hear about the events from somewhere else.  By being the first to tell them, I had a little more control over how they received the news and could help them to process it before hearing other people’s take on the events.

TELLING THEM

I spoke to Jake and Thomas separately, to give them each the chance to have the conversation they needed to have without the other interrupting.  I began by telling them the basic information about what happened in Christchurch then, from there, allowed their questions to shape the conversation. 

Thomas (who has just turned 5) questioned me mostly about the police’s role in catching the gunman and where he is, seeking reassurance that everyone is safe now.  He didn’t seem to want to talk at length about it and I sensed it didn’t feel particularly real to him.

Jake (7 years old) was more concerned with why the gunman did what he did. We discussed race, nationality and religion – topics we’ve spoken little about in the past.  There hasn’t often been a need in our conversations until now to differentiate between groups of people.   Our differences had never seemed particularly relevant until we needed to talk about the shootings in Christchurch.  But I have found myself questioning this – was my not talking much about race, nationality and religion until now an oversight born of Love for everyone… or from the privilege of being a white person in New Zealand? (There is nothing like parenthood to make us reflect on ourselves.)

As you can see, talking about events such as these can open a can of worms – there are so many topics that could be explored. When parenting, this can make us shy away because we feel that we don’t have all the answers (and we don’t).  But, although it was an opportunity to talk about these issues, our conversations had to be first about helping my boys to process what had happened. It was about them learning how to work through pain, confusion, vulnerability and injustice. Letting them lead the conversation helped me to both pitch the discussion according to their readiness and to see where their main concerns were. It gave them the chance to ask questions and to share their thoughts on the events.

THE LANGUAGE WE USE

Having to talk about the shootings with my young boys made me very conscious of the language we tend to use around such events. While New Zealanders have come together and on the whole seem determined to support one another, there is a lot of fearful, judgmental language around at the moment too. This is understandable but I wondered how useful the kinds of phrases I was hearing everywhere were. I chose different words when talking about it, including with Thomas and Jake. 

To start with, a lot of people talk about religious and racial “tolerance” but I realised what an inadequate word “tolerance” is.  It implies putting up with something.  For me, difference is not something to put up with, but to value, appreciate, respect and honour. 

I also avoided labeling the gunman as “a bad man” because no person is all good or all bad, although their actions may be clearly one way or the other.

I didn’t talk with my boys about “fighting against terrorism” or the “war on terrorism” as these words lead us into the kind of violent mindset that the gunman himself had. 

Jake and I talked a lot more about how similar all people are and our inherent equality with one another.  We prayed for the victims, their families, the gunman and his.  Apart from being more constructive, I think this will help my boys not to spiral downward in the way I have watched some people do as they repeatedly speak about this from a place of judgement, hatred and fear.  We can’t always choose what happens but we always get to choose the slant we put on things.

IN SUMMARY: FACING THE MESS

My conversations with my boys were messy, jumping around from point to point.  But these events are messy too.  I tried not to necessarily tidy it all up but to let my boys sit with their responses and questions.    The events of our lives don’t come in neat little packages and being able to accept that is an important life skill. 

I hope that, by following my boys’ lead, they were able to bite off what they could chew and address the issues that were of most concern to them.  I feel sad that their sense of security has likely been compromised to some degree but I hope I have shown them that that they can face difficult events, difficult thoughts and difficult feelings.


Much love to you and your little souls,



PS  This essay was written from the fortunate position of not living in the city of Christchurch myself.  My family and I have been able to discuss these events from a safer-feeling distance and I want to acknowledge that it will have been a very different experience for families living in Christchurch and, indeed, in other parts of the world where people live with both the threats and realities of various forms of violence and tragedy.

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6 replies
  1. Cynthia Baker
    Cynthia Baker says:

    I read with interest the approach you took in telling your boys about the recent horrific event in Christchurch NZ. Many of the phrases and comments that have been used to explain people’s views have possibly come from not quite knowing how to express themselves. Your approach in explaining the events to your boys seemed to be well thought through. Your comments about the word ‘tolerance’ were thought provoking. The words to “‘value, appreciate, respect and honour” people shows kindness, which is the very thing our Prime Minister has encouraged everyone to do.
    Much love to you and your little souls, Julie.

    Reply
    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Hi Cynthia, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this essay. I’m glad you made mention of Jacinda Ardern. We are blessed to have a Prime Minister who leads with great compassion and through her example brings out the kindness of our nation. We, the parents, teachers and adults in our children’s lives can be the example for them, leading with compassion in our own ways. Love Julie

      Reply
  2. Marie
    Marie says:

    Hi! I have recently been learning about the Six Core Strengths neuroscientist Bruce Perry says healthy children develop sequentially. All six strengths are related to interacting with others. The fifth strength is ‘Tolerance’, but, as you’ve suggested, we can do more than just accept that others are different from us. We can value and appreciate and embrace those differences. Perry calls this ability, and the sixth of his strengths, ‘Diversity’. I really admire the sensitive and courageous way you spoke about the events in Christchurch with your children. It sounds like the principal of their school really stepped up too.

    Reply
    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Hi Marie, So interesting to hear about the Six Core Strengths and to learn that they are all relational in nature. The Christchurch shootings certainly opened up the opportunity to talk about diversity with our children. I love such conversations because they feel so important but held back a bit on this occasion as I was more focused on supporting my boys and felt I only wanted to give them as much as they could manage. Will be interesting to see how our conversations around diversity may develop over the next weeks and months. Thank you for your helpful comment. Love Julie

      Reply
  3. Emma
    Emma says:

    Julie I teared up because I didn’t have the courage to talk about the shooting with my wee boy, and hid the reason we didn’t go to Japanese school on the Monday after the terrorist attack. I was so scared of a copycat attack at school, I couldn’t fathom giving that information to my little ones!
    But I am so grateful to you for the approach you took, especially with Jake. I will want to say this in person, but if I forget (baby brain!) I want to let you know that I am so glad we have you and Jake in our lives ❤️

    Reply
    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Thank you for reading and for your beautiful message, Emma. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong when it comes to whether we tell our children this type of news or not and I believe as parents we can trust our instincts regarding what our children are and aren’t ready to hear. Although I knew the Christchurch shootings would be challenging news for my boys and I didn’t want to tell them, I sensed they would be ok. There have been times in the past when I have “protected” them from things because they weren’t ready. For example, when Jake was 4, a family member died and we chose not to take him to the funeral because it would overwhelm his sensitive heart. Yet, a few years later, when Thomas was 4, we had another funeral to go to and had no hesitation about taking him along. Parenting is very much a case-by-case thing!

      Reply

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