Recently my daughter was asked to complete a project that involved her hypothetically travelling to five cities around the world. One of the cities she chose was New York. As she was researching places to she might visit she came across references to Ground Zero. 'Mum, what is that?' she asked.
I was immediately aware that my daughter, being a tween, is at a tricky developmental stage. Not quite a teenager, no longer a small child. She knew a lot about some things but there was still so much about the world and the way it worked that remained a mystery to her. I paused before answering. How much should I share with her of the terrible events that happened less than 15 years ago? I began choosing my words carefully. As I explained the meaning of the Ground Zero memorial and the events that had led up to its creation, she asked me another challenging question. 'Can I watch what happened on Youtube?'
My heart sunk because I had seen the footage probably a hundred times and I knew how confronting it was...to an adult. How confronting would it be through the eyes of a ten year old? Yet I also knew that to prevent her from seeing it would likely increase her curiosity and she would watch it anyway. At least this way I could talk her through it.
And so together we watched the images of two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre buildings. Her eyes widened as she remained glued to the screen, her questions coming think and fast. Did anyone survive? Did the people on the plane live? How many people died? Her eyes glistening, she turned to me and said 'But Mum, why would anyone do that?' I tried to answer as best I could, giving a child-friendly explanation of terrorism, a way of making sense of such acts without creating more fear. But sadly I could see that no child-friendly version could protect her from her own sudden realisation that evil exists, that bad people, and sometimes even good people, do bad things.
How barbaric the world must seem when first we lose our innocence. As parents, we try to shield our children from the harsh realities of an unpredictable world yet should they glimpse the evening news they will bear witness to stories of child abuse, poverty, murder, natural disasters. How do we explain death penalties, animal cruelty, and terrible acts committed in the name of religion without imparting the message that the world is an unsafe place?
I'm not always sure how to navigate this journey with my children, how much to share and how much to keep hidden until they are old enough to understand. I tend to advocate erring on the side of caution, revealing enough but not too much in a child digestible form. So much depends on the individual nature of each child; their sensitivity to the world around them and how quick their mind is to listen to our carefully chosen words and hear all that we aren't saying. Sometimes, no matter how carefully chosen my words are, my children know what I'm trying to hide.
I do know one thing however, and it is something I'm trying to convey to my children every day.
There is goodness in the world. A lot of it. There is kindness, there is love, there is wonder. There are angels masquerading on this Earth as people and most people in their hearts are good and decent. There is a family that will love her no matter what. There are also rainbows, dolphins, clouds that look like castles and flowers that thrive in the desert. In amongst pain and suffering, there is beauty. This is the world I want her to believe in.
As a mother, I wish I could preserve her innocence forever but I can't. Maybe though, I can preserve her belief that goodness reigns and that one day she herself might make a difference to this uncertain world.