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In an age of global terrorism, what should we tell the children?

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As parents, should we shelter and protect our children from the horrors of terrorism, or does that promote the very ignorance it thrives on?

On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 14, families across Japan awoke to blanket media coverage of the unfolding tragedy in Paris. In those moments, many parents were forced to make a decision about how they would engage with their children about the attacks, which left 130 people dead, hundreds more hurt and countless others traumatized.

Being an island nation halfway around the world, it could be argued that such news is only tangentially relevant to Japan. But with coverage of the aftermath of the attacks being almost unavoidable in our increasingly interconnected world, do parents have a greater responsibility than ever to educate their children about global events, regardless of the degree of relevance to their daily lives? And by extension, do their teachers, too?

According to the Institute of Economics and Peace, deaths from terrorism last year increased 80 percent over the total for 2013 to the highest level ever recorded. If this is the wider world we are educating our children to become active adult participants in, are we properly preparing them? In homes where these topics are avoided — particular when older children are involved, who are increasingly bombarded with news and views through TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on — the issue must feel like the elephant in the room.

“In this digital age, I think the best way that we can protect our children is by informing them,” says Sara Hitchens, a Tokyo-based counselor. “Left to their own devices, it is all too easy to pick up misinformation and prejudice.”

Such events are educational opportunities to introduce and discuss issues such as conflict resolution, peace, human rights, multiculturalism and acceptance.

“I think that talking about conflicts in the world is necessary for raising conscientious, globally minded, empathetic — which to a significant extent needs to be taught — individuals with an ability to take varying perspectives and resolve conflicts,” says Melanie Borisoff, a clinical psychologist currently practicing at the TELL Counseling Center in Tokyo.

Numerous studies, such as those conducted by Patricia Ramsey, a professor of psychology and education and the author of “Teaching And Learning in a Diverse World,” have shown that understanding diverse cultures at a young age can help us overcome and prevent racial and ethnic divisions that can ultimately lead to violence.

When having open discussions, Borisoff explains that it is important for children to know that it is acceptable to have views that differ from those of their parents and peers, and that these differences don’t necessarily have to be reconciled. “I think that is much more realistic,” she says. After all, such complex issues are rarely black and white.

Cyrille Vigneron, a French national with two middle-school-age children in Japan and immediate family in Paris, believes open communication is imperative.

“It is part of our children’s responsibility to defend their values and to understand what is happening around them,” he says. Vigneron feels that parents too often confuse innocence with ignorance, and that in many cases they may prefer to avoid debate.

“But education should be the opposite — teach them as early as possible what they should know to become independent and responsible,” he says. “Many issues precisely come from ignorance.”

And though children’s views may initially correspond with those of their parents, Hitchens believes that this is a starting point for discussion with friends to work out what they feel independently.

Conversations and exposure should be age-appropriate. Children can be more sensitive and have highly active imaginations.

“There is no advantage in scaring them unnecessarily by telling them about the world prematurely,” says Hitchens. “On the other hand, if they are old enough to ask a serious question, they deserve a serious answer.”

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers several suggestions: Remind students that they are safe; maintain a sense of normalcy; create forums for discussion and asking questions; use age-appropriate words and concepts; monitor exposure to news and graphic images; be honest; coordinate information between the home and school; and watch for physical and emotional signs of stress. At the end of the day, however, parents must evaluate what is appropriate for their own families.

Borisoff offers some age-specific guidelines. For 5-year-olds, parents should stay concrete and practical while being careful not to create anxiety. She suggests employing storytelling as a device to explain what can happen with adults — using scenarios such as when children play but sometimes disagree at the playground — and relate this to feelings of being scared or even bullied. Eight-year-olds can understand greater emotional complexity, and can therefore grasp concepts like conflict between governments and different countries. Fifteen-year-olds can engage more as adults. And parents of children of all ages should be prepared to discuss issues like death and violence.

But how relevant is this discussion to Japan and its children?

“Frankly speaking, what is happening in Paris or Syria is very distant both geographically and culturally from Japan,” says Yasuhiro Matsuda, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia. “But if something happens in China or Korea, then it will be very big news. If ordinary parents see international news with their kids, they may discuss these ideas, but most Japanese people simply think that this is very horrible and fearful, and that’s all.”

Matsuda explains that there is a faction of intellectuals in Japan who are very critical of France, the U.S. and other Western nations — those who may classify themselves as pacifists. And there are others who feel safe from terrorism because the actions in the Middle East are seemingly irrelevant to Japan’s domestic policies. And while stressing that terrorism should not be justified, says Matsuda, “people here simply do not know how to react or to deal with it.”

This, it could be argued, is precisely why open discourse about terrorism is necessary.

“Japanese people think it’s totally disconnected from their country,” says mother of three Yuka Irie. “They are not concerned about it. It happened really far overseas, and it’s never going to happen on their soil.”

But since returning to Tokyo after having lived in the U.S. at the time of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, Irie’s thinking has changed. “We don’t know what the future holds, and we must prepare our children,” she says.

The Japanese media can seem to reinforce this sense of being far removed from the events in Paris, a trend lamented recently by Toshihiko Ogata, senior international correspondent at the Asahi Shimbun.

“Japan is now ready to exercise the right to collective self-defense, and it means Japan, too, is at risk of Islamic State attacks,” writes Ogata, referring to the group that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. “Yet the Japanese media are broadcasting cooking and variety shows as usual.”

So, what role should schools play? While the Lycee Francais International de Tokyo sent out an email to parents after the Paris attacks and held a minute’s silence followed by a talk from its head of school on the subject, some schools chose to ignore the events entirely.

“Schools not talking about it is a missed opportunity to explain what is going in our world and to learn,” believes TELL’s Borisoff. “Not talking to them about it is not educating them and keeping them naive, and that’s not what education is about. Of course you should talk about it at home, but if you only talk about it at home, you have a narrow vision of what is going on.”

Cyrille Vigneron’s son Jun, an 8th-grader attending an international school in Tokyo, agrees.

“What I think is most important is if we can talk in school,” he says. “In my family, we can all share. But I have some friends who have different opinions from their parents, and they tell me it’s really unpleasant to talk to them. And we need to do this every day for practice, so we can form our own opinions.”

Regular Japanese schools rarely deviate from the centralized curriculum mandated by the education ministry into unauthorized topics that could be deemed controversial. When a series of Japanese teachers at state schools were revealed to have shown graphic videos or images of the beheadings of Islamic State hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa earlier this year to junior-high and elementary school students, they were publicly rebuked by the ministry for having caused unnecessary trauma — arguably rightly so. But this doesn’t mean there is no appropriate way to broach these kinds of subjects in the classroom.

Parents and teachers alike may feel they do not have the tools, training or support to feel comfortable initiating the spontaneous discussions and lessons about complex global events necessary to cultivate 21st-century skills. As The Asia Society stresses, “Pressing issues such as protecting the environment, managing unprecedented human migration and addressing the challenges of poverty, global health and human rights will demand a generation of individuals with a strong capacity to cooperate across national borders.”

So, with an abundance of resources out there to help (see sidebar), parents and educators need to ask themselves whether the alternative — children growing up insulated from and potentially misunderstanding the real world — is a risk they are prepared to accept.

Ultimately, when terrible things happen, “You want to contain the anxiety,” says Borisoff, but at the same time, “you want to talk to them about it and give them hope. If you can give them a sense of hope in the world, then that is a big gift: ‘Yes, this is going on but what can we do and what can we think about to make it better in the future?’ ”

Teru Clavel is an education consultant, writer and speaker specializing in comparative, multicultural and multilingual education. Website: www.teruclavel.com. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Where to turn for help

For those seeking advice on how to speak with children about terrorism and war, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (bit.ly/aacapterror) and Scholastic (bit.ly/scholtragedy) offer helpful guidelines. For factual articles geared toward students, there are online news sources such as Time 4 Kids (app.timeforkids.com), published by Time magazine, and Scholastic’s News for your Classroom (bit.ly/scholparis)

Both TELL (www.telljp.com) and International Mental Health Professionals Japan (www.imhpj.org/about.html) have counselors at hand for children and adults who may benefit from speaking with a therapist. And for those interested in learning about how to foster global competence and cultural understanding, The Asia Society (bit.ly/asiasocglobcomp) and Community Tool Box (bit.ly/comtoolbox) offer in-depth guidance. (T.C.)

  • Paul Martin

    The TRUTH !

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    Heads in the sand might have been O.K. in medieval times (or was it?), but in this day and age, to be ignorant of what happens beyond your borders is just that : ignorant.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    I have no idea why someone wouldn’t tell their kids about what’s happening. Granted, exactly when they need to be informed is one thing, but definitely by the time “teen” is a part of their age, they should know what’s going on and why.

    • kooni

      Parents themselves are not properly informed to be able to engage in such conversations with their children. Same issue as with classroom teachers. So, it’s avoidance.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Hm? If parents are not informed, it’s on them. The information is out there, unless we’re talking about a country that has a restrictive firewall.

      • kooni

        Yes, of course. But, ultimately, we are all responsible for this next generation. So, if parents aren’t doing their part, our schools should. Otherwise, we end up with the possibility of increased ignorance, which, as we see, is dangerous. I believe this article serves as a PSA.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Ah, but at least with Japan in specific, with Abe in power, the narrative will always be pro militarization, so I’m not sure the schools would be a good source of information for the Japanese youth.

      • kooni

        I agree completely.

  • Firas Kraïem

    I’d like to see more like this, it’s a welcome change from the disguised advertising for overpriced “international” schools.