How I talk to my children about terrorism

Teens are getting their news via social media
Teens are getting their news via social media Photo: Getty Images

My family just arrived back from England, Ireland and Paris, four weeks of family visits and road trips, prompted by a cousin's Irish wedding that took no account of Australian school holidays. Our blithe family trip also became a month of proximity to terrorism.

We were two hours' drive from Manchester when the Ariana Grande concert attack occurred, and a week from a planned visit to the city. It felt close and shocking though we were very definitely not there. Rather, we were with my parents-in-law, who have a television in their kitchen. The coverage was blanket, the talk was of dead kids and everyday heroes. I asked them to turn it off when my daughters, 12 and 13, came downstairs.

Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus performing at the One Love Manchester concert.
Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus performing at the One Love Manchester concert. Photo: Dave Hogan

I chatted at breakfast when they emerged and sketched plans for the day. I wanted to protect them, I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want it to have happened, I wanted it to go away. The 12-year-old's face was heavy.  "Did you hear what happened at the Ariana Grande concert?" she asked, probing and defiant, having already seen it on the Snapchat news, Instagram, a scrolling, roiling parade of hashtags, laments and rumour. I felt  as if I'd failed her – shouldn't I be moderating the big, bad world for her, making it safe?

But everything comes in these days and you never know what the next casual scroll is going to lob at your awareness. It's hard enough as an adult and I lurch between wanting to know everything and making sure I know nothing, trying to stay optimistic while feeling awfully powerless.

We went to Manchester and the 12-year-old outlined her plan to go to the memorial fundraising concert that Ariana Grande was putting on with fellow pop idols Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. That was never going to happen: the show was sold out and we were leaving town two days before. And I didn't want her to, though I didn't say that.

Instead, I gave a little speech in the car on the motorway about how brave it was of Ariana, how hard it would be for her to perform there, how nice it was of her famous friends to join her. And how the terrorists win by creating terror, that there is a clue in the word, and that they aim for us to become terrified and stop doing the normal things we want to do. I felt  as if it was one of those good mum speeches, interpreting and explaining the world while keeping the dangers distant, because otherwise how do you go on?

And then we got to London. I woke up on our second morning, saw the sun through the shutters, put my running shoes on and checked my phone. The screen bristled with messages from friends and family checking that we were okay. We were. I caught up on the news about another terror attack, just a couple of miles and minutes from where we'd had a lovely, peaceful dinner the night before.

What do you do? I didn't trust the sunny day outside the window any more. I didn't think I could go for a jog. I didn't want to not be there when my husband and children woke up. I deeply resented the disruption, even while despising myself for my trivia.

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I climbed into the double bed my daughters were sharing, between their warm, heavy arms and legs, their safe slumber. I didn't want to wake them but I wanted to be the one to tell them, not that I ever wanted the words to come out of my mouth, or into their ears, or anywhere near their consciousness. So I told them quickly, concentrating on the fact that the attackers were dead, not really enjoying that emphasis, but not able to talk about knives to the face.

As a parent, the baseline is safety and through all of my mothering I've never really had to think about it. Of course, I know about car crashes and cancer and sinkholes and violence. I know about – and know – refugees among us. I also know my mother and father were born safe then displaced as children by threats that their parents judged insupportable.

But I have never worried about the bedrock safety of going out and coming home alive. Instead, I have worried about fruit juice and screen time and birthday presents and not making it to the dentist for two years. That's lucky – and tenuous.

Messages of condolence on a wall at the end of London Bridge.
Messages of condolence on a wall at the end of London Bridge. Photo: Getty Images

Terrorism is a tear in the normal rules and it rips normal families asunder. I keep imagining myself on London Bridge, placing myself between a ramming car and my child. I know I would do that and I know it wouldn't help. How strong am I? What would I do if a knife came towards me? How would I stay brave?

It doesn't seem right that safety should be a numbers game, a pure matter of statistics, that there are so many people and places that it's unlikely to be any one person in any particular place. But that's what I'm counting on. Is that callous, or is that a reasonable everyday victory over terrorism?

When I told the kids what had happened in London, they asked some questions then we drifted into our day. I made coffee, felt drained, and they got on their screens and saw what they saw. I almost cried when one started chatting with her friend back home and told her about the squirrel she saw in our north London garden and the fidget spinners she had acquired on the road.

We went to Paris next and the kids took selfies with the Eiffel Tower and looked plain glad. We took the lift to the second floor and my husband and I pointed out landmarks: Montmartre, the Pompidou, Notre Dame. An hour later, there was a terrorist stabbing at Notre Dame and I saw footage of tourists running from the church. Again, that could have been us. But it wasn't. And it wasn't likely to be.

Walking through the metro the next day, putting a used tissue in a transparent garbage bin, skirting a pitiful Syrian family begging against a wall, my older daughter asked if I knew what had happened. I said, 'Yes, sort of,' which was sort of true – I was saturated. 'Why didn't you tell us then? Is it because we're babies?" she asked viciously. Again I wondered which truths to share and how to mediate the incomprehensible.

Our flight home was on Qatar Airways, initially on a mostly empty flight from Birmingham. We stretched out gratefully and went to sleep. As we descended to an eerily quiet Doha airport, the captain thanked us for our support and I didn't know if I should feel proud or stupid. Does Qatar really support extremists? Did my money pay for explosives, a knife, a terrorist's teapot?

I love and embrace a connected world, but I sometimes wish I could retreat to a bubble and seal it shut. I want to travel and explore and take my kids to pop concerts and Paris. I also want them to wake up to squirrels and peace, not bad news and fear. I'm not sure how to balance experience and ebbing innocence – a screen ban seems as feasible as world peace – but today I'm just glad to be home.

Dani Valent is a Fairfax Media contributor.