Terrorism (photo: Ksayer1 ob Flickr)

Answering our kids’ WHY question on terrorism

Since the events of 13/11 in Paris, perhaps you’ve seen the articles on “How to talk with your kids about terrorism.” I read several useful tips, yet for me, as most parenting guide go, I especially liked “trust your intuition—you know your child better than anyone.” However, what if our intuition is guided purely by fear?  It’s only natural we take a “teaching moment” like this to share our beliefs and opinions with our children. I’m hoping we take this opportunity to consider the positive messages we really want to pass on to them.

Listening first

I’m seeing many different responses, ranging from: “We have to take revenge! Eradicate them!” to “We should close our borders!” to “Peaceful solutions are the only way forward!” What if instead of telling our kids what we think, we first listen to their reactions? I tried this with my 9- and 11-year olds over breakfast Saturday morning. I was struck by their lack of immediate opinion; instead they asked rather desperately, “BUT WHY?”

This gave me a lot of pause. I realized that I didn’t have any ready answers. Then I considered how very valid and important this question is. I found it beautiful that these young humans don’t rush to judgment but truly wish to understand. I let them know I appreciated their open interest and that I’d like to try to learn more myself.

Why ask why?

What does drives people to this kind of violent suicide mission? Something must be REALLY important to them to go to such desperate lengths. How tragic that they can’t find peaceful ways of expressing and obtaining what they most want. How sad that as a result of their violent strategies, the world has closed its ears. Many (most?) have decided it can’t be understood and we have no choice but to meet violence with violence.

I don’t want to believe this. I especially don’t want my children to believe this for the rest of their lives. One of the messages I’d like for them to learn in this painful moment was well expressed by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC): “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.” I like this because it removes the framework of right vs. wrong thinking and helps us reflect on how this is happening in our personal daily lives. In a Saturday article, The New York Times bought into this way of thinking: “France embodies everything religious zealots everywhere hate.” Yet for me, it still doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to “What really drove them to do this?” If there’s hate, then why?

So why does ISIS do what it does?

Ezra Klein’s 5 minute video helped me understand how convoluted the entire “Syrian crisis” is, yet doesn’t at all get to the root of ISIS’s “why.” Other articles discuss current strategies of the various national parties involved and point to ISIS’s blind religious faith in centuries-old prophecies that serve as their primary motivation (What ISIS Really Wants – The Atlantic; Why Isis Fights – The Guardian; In Search of a Strategy – The New Yorker).

For me, these explanations just don’t go nearly deep enough – I want to know WHY on the human level of longings. I don’t study Middle Eastern politics or religious affairs of the world. I am keen to understand what drives human behavior. I’ve learned from NVC that basic needs drive us all and we have them in common with one another. The way I can best make sense of all that is happening right now . . . understand what could possibly be driving those dedicating their short-lived lives to ISIS’s cause is explained to a large degree by the inequitable distribution of wealth on the planet (just watch this 4-minute video). It helps me feel compassionate even. How might I feel if I lived outside the wealthy region of the world . . . jealous, resentful, angry? The needs for balance and equality, even belonging and knowing my right to exist would be driving me, for sure.

When I explained this (in the simplest of terms) to my children, they got it, too. It’s basic to all humans, no matter who we are, where we live, or even how old we are. We talked about how it in no way JUSTIFIES violence. Yet their question, “But WHY?” was at least answered in a way they could grasp. We talked about other possible ways ISIS could come up for themselves, referring to successful models such as Ghandi and MLKing. We felt very sad together that ISIS is choosing a different route, yet ended the conversation on a hopeful note. There ARE peaceful ways forward. Ultimately, peace is something every human being on the planet wants. I tend to agree with Einstein that it can only be achieved through deeper understanding.




1 reply
  1. Catriona
    Catriona says:

    I really like this for two reasons. One is that you have looked at the problem in a really human, open way, which is the only way the world can move forward. I was having similar thoughts today but wondered if I might make myself a target for those who think it’s just pandering to terrorism to try to understand the human feelings at play. The other thing I like is that you’ve taken the expertise which you often use to look inwards at yourself, and you’ve turned it on world events, which can be too easy for people to ignore when they’re focussed on self-improvement.

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