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What Parents Are Teaching Their Kids About Terrorism

Amid a deluge of terrorist attacks abroad and mass shootings at home, American parents are doing what they can to keep their kids safe without inciting panic.

av Beenish Ahmed
2016 08 24, 7:40am

The Mutchler family at their home in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by the author

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Rachel Mutchler, a physician's assistant, and her husband Jay, a stay-at-home dad, were planning to vacation in New York City with their young children last November when gunmen and bombers killed 130 people in attacks across Paris.

They feared a similar catastrophe might strike the American cultural capital. The Toledo, Ohio, parents took that grim prospect even more seriously after the State Department urged American citizens to be leery of crowds due to increased terrorist threats from Islamic militants and other groups. But the Mutchlers tried to weather the storm, broaching the subject with their eldest children.

"We talked about going [anyway] and not living in fear," Rachel Mutchler told VICE. But when their eight-year-old son, Reece, began to have something in the vein of a panic attack, the parents changed course, ultimately settling on a quieter destination: Wilmington, Virginia.

"I was pretty sad," ten-year-old Noel Mutchler told me recently of her parents' decision. "But I also understood just in case if we got hurt or anyone else got hurt, it wouldn't be a good idea to go to big cities because that's where [terrorists] targeted [their attacks]."

Though the couple brought their kids in on the decision-making process in that case, they've since taken steps to shield the children from the images of bombings and mass shootings that have become virtually inescapable in recent years. Among other things, the family dropped their cable TV connection and are guarded when discussing terrorism.

This approach is in line with advice the American Academy of Pediatrics issued following the Paris attacks. Warning of the "lasting effects" violence can have on children "even if they are only learning about it through the media," the organization urged parents to "take care with the images that children see and hear about." So it is for parents raising kids in modern America, a place where mass shootings are baked into the fabric of national life and images of terrorists beheading captives and wreaking havoc on foreign capitals have become ubiquitous.

Terrorist attacks can be doubly troubling for Muslim children, according to Sameera Ahmed, the director of the Family Youth Institute, an Ohio-based organization that has conducted extensive research on the topic. Muslim kids experience the shock of learning about a terrorist attack just like their peers, of course. "But then they have to quickly switch gears, and they often get stressed out until information about the perpetrator is obtained," Ahmed told me. "If by chance the individual is Muslim, then they have to deal with the additional stress of being hypervigilant about whether people will harass them [and if they] will they be safe in public settings."

Ahmed cites stereotypes presented by the media and scapegoating by political candidates as a major factors in creating a potentially hostile environment for Muslim American children in the aftermath of attacks. "When peer bullying does occur and there is name-calling of fellow students, it's because we've given [children] the green light to do so," she said. "After all, if a presidential candidate can do it without ramification, why can't a kid?"

According to an informal online survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled "The Trump Effect" this spring, young people whose race, religion, or nationality has been lambasted on the campaign trail have seen a sharp increase in bullying from their peers.

Fear of terrorism, of course, spans the racial divide at the center of American culture—but some communities have their own unique kind of anxiety.

"I think about the possibly of a shooting nearly daily as I dread the day when my precious and adored black son transitions in society's eyes from cute to threatening and dangerous," one 38-year-old Philadelphia woman identified only as Rachel told the New York Times. "Crowded places or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not so much."

Asra Nomani is a Washington, DC–based journalist, professor, and Muslim mother who says she doesn't fear her 13-year-old son will bear the brunt of a backlash so much as that he'd be caught in the wrong place at the time of an attack.

"He's a young man of color, but for me, it's not at all about him being targeted for his identity, but really just the fact that innocents are so much in the crosshairs today," Nomani said. "I see from a restaurant in Bangladesh, to the airport in Istanbul, to a nightclub in Orlando, that people are going about their daily lives and finding themselves with targets on their backs."

That fear came to a head last month when she and her son traveled to Dallas for a fencing tournament—just in time for the assassination of five police officers (and injury of others, including civilians) by a gunman irate at police violence against black men.

"We were walking through downtown when we stumbled upon the Black Lives Matter march that was happening to protest police shootings [in Minnesota and Louisiana]," Nomani said, adding that Pokémon Go had just launched and her son was enthralled by the game. "We came into the park where the main protest was happening, and I see, on my son's phone, that there's a Pokémon right by some megaphone. Of course, there are 500 people around that Pokémon at that moment."

They were still in the vicinity when the attack unfolded and police cars flooded the street outside their hotel. For Nomani, the situation came to highlight the challenges of parenting in the time of so many unpredictable assaults on one's sense of basic safety that a kid playing a game could easily find himself in the middle of a violent altercation between a deranged man and police.

"This is the reality that our kids are growing up in here in America," Nomani told me. "[It requires] hypervigilance because of these threats from so many different sides."

Especially after that weekend in Dallas, Nomani is determined her son be able to protect himself when faced with a gun or terrorist attack. While she didn't think about taking active-shooter or hostile environment training courses until she traveled to conflict areas in Pakistan for her job, she feels her son should have those skills to get by in what she sees as an increasingly volatile world.

"I want him, as a young man, to have some level of training so that he knows, at least, how to not make a situation worse," she told me.

Although they don't consider themselves "gun people," the Mutchlers, too, are trying to make sure their children know how to respond should their worst nightmares unfold. Noel and Reece have already started learning about gun safety and have even gone shooting with some relatives.

Even before the Paris attacks, the parents were forced to think ahead after a September 2015 incident where a gunman fired two shots and injured one person outside of a mall just a couple of blocks from the school Noel and Reece attend.

"It made me a little scared and nervous," Noel told me, adding that her teacher read to the class to try to calm everyone down. That anxiety returns to her at random moments—like while waiting for a video game to load or a movie to start.

"Sometimes [terrorism] just pops into my head," Noel said. "I try to think different thoughts, like happy thoughts."

Follow Beenish Ahmed on Twitter.

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