Making sense of bad news for kids

As terrorism's widening reach becomes the new normal, I find myself struggling to give my children simple answers to difficult questions

You have probably watched the news clip or read at least an extract of the interview that has since gone viral.

In the wake of the Nov 13 Paris terror attacks, a father tries to make sense of the senseless killings for his six-year-old son as they visit a memorial site and are approached by a French TV journalist.

Asked if he understood what happened, the boy articulated his fears about the "bad guys" and thought his family should move.

His father interjected to say France is their home, to which the boy responded: "They've got guns. They can shoot us because they're really, really mean, Papa."

The much-quoted reply from his dad, later identified as Mr Angel Le, could well be the headline of the year: "They might have guns but we have flowers."

"But flowers don't do anything," his son, Brandon, argued.

And in reassuring his son, a composed Mr Le also comforted the world: "Of course, they do. Look, everyone is putting flowers. It's to fight against guns."


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The philosophical message is clear: The flowers and candles symbolise the collective hope, courage and solidarity in the face of terrorism's widening reach, a spectre that is fast becoming the new normal.

Brandon might not have grasped all that. But his father's soothing answer, which turns the floral tributes into a tangible defence and protest against violence, is enough to bring a smile back on his face.

The moving exchange has since been lauded as a textbook example of an age-appropriate response when explaining bad news to kids.

"It's not so much that 'we have flowers' is a magical phrase," wrote KJ Dell'Antonia in The New York Times' Motherlode blog. But Mr Le's thoughtful reply "shows a father responding to his son in that moment, answering his need right then for comfort and the right level of honesty".

What would I give for the same eloquence and presence of mind when my kids seek simple answers to difficult questions in an increasingly fraught world.

Too often, I fail to titrate the bad news in the right doses for my eight-year-old son and his sister, who is five.

For instance, I thought I would give my boy a quick lesson in current affairs when I told him about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa that made headlines last year, and explained why it was sparking panic worldwide.

Child experts say the most important thing adults should do when helping kids cope with grim realities is to first reassure them and make them feel safe and secure. Often, the younger ones do not have the emotional  depth to process hard truths, so giving them more information than they can handle can prove traumatising.

But his curiosity soon turned into paranoia, and the high mortality rate was all that he remembered. Whenever we planned a holiday after that, he would ask: "Is there Ebola in that place?"

My lack of a child filter could be an occupational hazard: As a journalist, I'm trained to be factual and objective. No embellishment, no sugar-coating.

It could also be a matter of my pragmatic ways. I've never, for instance, fed my kids stories about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. When they asked if these characters were real, I simply told them the truth.

It makes no sense for me to keep alive a lie which I would only have to destroy or, worse, defend, when the scales fall from their eyes.

So when my son asked recently if the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was in Singapore, I gave him the first answer that came to mind: "I wouldn't be surprised. It is everywhere."

I saw his eyes widen in surprise, or probably shock, and instantly regretted my unvarnished reply. Thanks to me, ISIS has replaced Ebola as his greatest fear.

He has read enough headlines and heard enough conversations between my husband and me to know that the terrorist group is behind a slew of atrocities in other parts of the world.

But until my response, he didn't think its members could actually be on our doorstep.

Child experts say the most important thing adults should do when helping kids cope with grim realities is to first reassure them and make them feel safe and secure.

Often, the younger ones do not have the emotional depth to process hard truths, so giving them more information than they can handle can prove traumatising.

I don't believe shielding our children from the evils of the world helps them in the long run. And the older they get, the more "why" questions you will have to field - the same tough questions adults struggle with.

Why do people do this to one another? Why does God allow such things to happen?

But I now know better: The details dished out, however innocuous they may seem to me, should always be tailored to their maturity level.

My answer to my son's ISIS question was clearly a negative demonstration. I should have broken the news in a way that also offered comfort and spared him the cynical adult perspective.

So I hastened to add that, while attacks could happen anywhere, Singapore has a highly capable government, army and police force that are all working hard to protect us, so the chances of us coming to harm are low.

But the damage was done.

A few days later, he told us about a nightmare he had.

"I dreamt that ISIS came flying through my bedroom window and kidnapped all of us," he recounted. He then asked: "Will they come to our home?"

This time, I tried harder.

Anything is possible but this is highly unlikely, I replied, resisting the urge to add "for now".

"It's just like how you could be struck by lightning or run over by a car when you are out. But what are the chances of these things happening? Are you going to stay home and live in fear forever?"

We talked about what was healthy fear - enough to keep us alert but not so much as to paralyse us.

He relaxed enough to want to know about other terrorist groups plaguing the world.

We agreed on a few things he could do whenever fear gripped him: seek clarity from us; say a prayer for our family; say a prayer for victims of violence that he reads about in the papers; and, if he could, pray for the hearts of the perpetrators to be converted.

The idea is to empower him and, hopefully, channel any panic or grief into something more constructive.

And then I told him stories about people who did just that, choosing to show love when they could so easily have done otherwise in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

French journalist Antoine Leiris, whose wife was gunned down in the Bataclan concert hall, penned an open letter to the ISIS militants that moved me to tears.

"Responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are," the bereaved widower wrote, adding that his 17-month-old son "will insult you with his happiness and freedom".

Over in London, 22-year-old Ashley Powys was widely praised for jumping to the defence of a young Muslim girl on the Tube. She had been verbally abused by another commuter, who made racial slurs and accused "her people" of murdering the Paris terror victims.

Recounting the incident in a Facebook post, Mr Powys explained his actions: "I want us to send a message to the Islamic State, and any other group which inspires fear and hatred. I want us to send the message that what they destroy, we'll rebuild together. What lives they take, we'll remember together. And what people they target, we'll protect together."

And this, perhaps, is the most important lesson we can glean from such tragedies and senseless violence, of which there will no doubt be many more examples in the days to come.

As Dr Jillian Roberts, a Canadian child psychologist, urged: "Let's ingrain love and peace into children. Let us teach our children the difference between right and wrong. Let us not teach our children to hate back."

I pray this is what will stick in my children's minds as they grow older and no longer need or want me to make sense of the world for them.

Some people can't tell right from wrong but we should. Some people can't purge the hatred within them but we must.

They might have guns but we have faith.

Faith that there is enough good in most of us to overcome the evil dwelling in a few among us. Faith that something good can come out of something bad. And faith that even in the worst of times, man will always unite in hope and strive for the best.

•Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Making sense of bad news for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe