After it was posted several times on social media, I finally watched a short video of a French father comforting his child who was asking about the terror attacks in Paris. His answer was that we would fight the bad men with guns with flowers and love. The child looks a bit unconvinced, but accepts the explanation.
As a father myself, I know it’s often very hard to know how to address the fears of children when it comes to existential threats. I have not yet had to address the terrorist attacks in Paris or Beirut with my kids. I’m sure when I do, it won’t be easy to find the right words.
But here’s what I find interesting. Even in our modern day, bad guys in media for children are most decidedly not confronted with flowers. The bad guys are fought. From Star Wars to How to Train Your Dragon, there’s a recognition that evil is to be resisted. But when it comes to real-life events involving real-life evil, there’s often an inability to let children know that, yes, these bad guys are doing evil and we need bravery to fight against it.
Obviously this can be taken in the wrong direction. In his excellent book The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell shows how a generation of young men raised on unrealistic tales of chivalry were profoundly shaken by entering the horrors of World War I, and how echoes of the cynicism about heroism generated by this have shaped popular narratives about battle ever since. We don’t want to repeat that mistake.
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon,” says G.K. Chesterton in his book Tremendous Trifles. He goes on: “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness and stronger than strong fear.”
The stories we tell our children still let them know that evil can be vanquished. They naturally connect the stories to the world around them. And it does a disservice to them if we try to break that connection.