Two days after the Boston marathon bombing, my son asked: ‘Mummy, why did they kill that boy?’ It’s not a question you want to hear, but you can’t hide from the reality, says Lianne Kolirin
He was referring to eight-year-old Martin Richard, who died at the finish line while cheering on the runners. The question floored me – I had no idea he knew about this act of terror. Quickly I found myself in a rambling monologue about religion and some people’s warped interpretation of it. My son looked bewildered. I’d lost him, and indeed myself.
‘But why did they do it, Mummy?’
I tried to distract him and defer that conversation for several years. Later, and in the wake of the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, I trawled the internet for advice on discussing terrorism with children. My search returned little so I embarked on my own investigation.
Several years ago I wrote an article for the Jewish Chronicle on how to tell children about the Holocaust. An educator at the Jewish Museum, Jude Vandervelde, provided invaluable input. I rang her in the hope she might suggest an expert or two for me to speak to. She laughed, then told me that she was the perfect person.
Her best friend Miriam Hyman, 32, was killed on the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square in London on 7/7 – and Jude had to explain it to her four-year-old son Sam. ‘He was very close to Miriam,’ says Jude. ‘As I rang friends to break the news, Sam was sitting on the stairs. I asked him what he was doing up so late and he said, “I’m just here for you.” He very much had a sense of things going on. It was so traumatic that we didn’t think about what to say or how to say it. I never didn’t talk about it. He’s always known and slowly all the details were revealed.’
Jude sees parallels in the approach she recommends for Holocaust education and discussing terrorism with kids. Timing is key, so wait for your child to be interested. ‘Children are much cannier than we realise and pick up when we’re keeping something from them,’ she says. ‘Answer their questions. If children aren’t ready they won’t ask. But it should be a slow reveal, rather than a serious sit-down talk, which can be frightening. We should sometimes say, “I don’t know.” You can’t claim to know why someone takes another life.’
Now 12, Sam and his younger brother are like surrogate grandchildren to Miriam’s parents, Mavis and John. ‘It’s even harder to cope when everyone else is really sad and you don’t know why,’ says Sam. ‘Mum and dad, and Mavis and John, have always involved me in their conversations.’
Miriam’s parents and sister Esther set up a memorial trust in her name. They have helped nearly 50,000 children with sight problems at the Miriam Hyman Children’s Eye Care Centre in Orissa, India. While their work there continues, the trust also aims to educate British schoolchildren about terrorism. The charity has joined forces with Miriam’s former school to write an education programme to be piloted next year.
‘We don’t try to explain the mindset of a terrorist or the history of how those situations arose – we use Miriam’s story as a starting point,’ says Esther. ‘We hope anybody who participates will have the ability, when confronted in later life with radical propaganda, to see past the irrationality of extremism.’
The online resource is initially aimed at secondary schools, although it may be rolled out to younger children. You may think primary-aged children are too young, but the sad truth is that we cannot protect them indefinitely from outside influences, says psychotherapist Anne Denny.
She has devised SleepTalk, a talking therapy for children’s behavioural issues, including trauma, stress and anxiety. Our default position, when faced with difficult questions, is to fob kids off with a story, but honesty is all important, says Denny.
‘Explain things in terms of their realities,’ she says. ‘Say, for example, they might have had an argument with someone. Explain that in some people that anger gets bigger and makes them do terrible things. You’re worried you’ll destroy your son’s innocence and he will live in fear for ever. But he may go on to use the information as a force for good.’
Denny recommends balancing the horror with positivity. In discussing Boston, for example, highlight the thousands of people who ran the London Marathon in honour of the Boston victims – or highlight the children who’ve had their sight saved by Miriam’s trust.
‘Talking to children about terrorism is like talking about death: it’s hard and painful and we try to protect them from it,’ says Denny. ‘But you can be truthful without being harsh and the fear is just our fear about what the truth will do to them.’