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How can I explain terrorism and the recent radical Muslim shootings in Paris to my primary school age children?

They have obviously noticed the media reports and they saw our local TV tower lit up red-white-blue today and so we cautiously started talking about what have happened in Paris and why.

But I've got a hard time explaining the motives of the terrorists. Especially as we are not religious and the concept of god is something we only briefly touched in the past yet that's what seems to be in the core of all these recent attacks.

I don't necessarily want to explain terrorism or Islam vs Western world conflict in all the details to my kids. Hence I ask here for tips on how to simplify why it happened. Because they already know it did happen and they want to know why, if it can happen again, if it can happen here, etc. All are legitimate questions even from a little child.

I have no problem talking about "difficult" topics like money or even sexuality with them but here I'm at a loss...

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    I am not sure to understand. Are you at a loss to explain it because you do not understand it fully yourself, which is quite understandable (I don't understand most of it either), or do you have difficulty explaining it to primary school aged children, while you perfectly understand at least your point of view? Assume you need to explain theses attacks to an adult that don't know much about this problem (or event don't know what terrorism is). Is it something you might be able to do? – DainDwarf Nov 16 '15 at 8:49
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    @DainDwarf the way I see it, it's a huge topic to open up. It's too complex for giving a short surface explanation, because on the surface it just doesn't make sense - not even to adults! So an explanation has to be deeper, and that's not a part of this world I'd like to show a pre- or primary-schooler. Let them be innocent as long as possible... I guess the challenge is how can terrorism be explained simply and briefly? Unfortunately, it's not possible to make it seem not dangerous. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 16 '15 at 9:13
  • @DainDwarf good point - I'm not sure I understand it myself. While I sort of get some bits and pieces of their ideology and the conflict they perceive with our civilisation their actions are beyond the comprehension of any western world mind. But I don't necessarily want to explain terrorism or Islam or immigration in all the detail to my kids. Hence I ask here for tips on how to simplify why it happened. Because they already know it happened and they want to know why, if it can happen again, if it can happen here, etc. All legitimate questions even from a little child. – MLu Nov 16 '15 at 9:48
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    The BBC have a news programme for children called "Newsround". You may find some useful info there. bbc.co.uk/newsround and their coverage of Paris attacks bbc.co.uk/newsround/34819597 – DanBeale Nov 16 '15 at 21:58
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    FWIW, as an atheist I don't think God really is necessary to the explanation. While it's true that IS seeks to justify its goals in terms of religion, what it really amounts to is that they want to live in a certain way and achieve certain things, and they're willing (actually, eager) to kill civilians and to die in order to do so. You don't need to give them a lesson in fringe Islamic theology, just in the politics. If anything, I don't think religion should be the focus until the children are sophisticated enough not to conclude that "Islam did it". – Steve Jessop Nov 17 '15 at 3:30
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I've got a hard time explaining the motives of the terrorists.

I don't know whether this is the best article on the subject (it's near the top of this Google search) but for example What Motivates Terrorists? starts with,

One of the most frequently asked questions about terrorism is also the most intractable. Why? Why do they do it? Why do people join terrorist groups and participate in acts of terrorism?

There are as many answers to this question as there are terrorist groups, and everyone from clerics to caustic cab drivers seems to have a confident opinion on the subject, as though the interior world of terrorists can be easily mined and mapped. But this confidence is often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it. It also betrays an epic obliviousness about just how difficult it is to access the internal, subjective desires and emotions that shape the outer world.

Another article at the top of that Google search is "What ISIS Really Wants" which claims to describe the group's ideology, but even if that's true I guess that the group ideology isn't the individuals' motives.


Because it's difficult for you to know, beware it's likely (or certain) that if you try to explain it then you'll tell some untruth or oversimplification or stereotype (which I think you should avoid when explaining the world to children, notwithstanding the Lie to children concept).

In particular it might be better to (or I might prefer to) avoid teaching xenophobia, for example, or avoid mis-explaining a "religious" doctrine that you don't personally understand and which isn't a real motive in your world.

So, instead of guessing terrorists' motives, perhaps an explanation like the following, of things you do know be true:

  • People get hurt e.g. illness, and car accidents (up to you how much you want to go into that, e.g. to include an explanation of death, old age, accident, etc., and what causes those, whether such 'hurt' is eventually inevitable and how to react to it).
  • People are sometimes hurt in crimes: robbery, murder, etc. They're hurt because criminals hurt them. Society more-or-less defines "crime" as actions-which-hurt-people.
  • Having got that far you might be shirking the truth if you didn't add that people get hurt in wars. I don't know how much you want to equate "war" with "criminal behaviour" however the doctrine of "just" war i.e. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory might be wrong for someone of primary school age (even if you agree with it), so simplify that as "war is hell" or what you will.

Then you can turn the conversation to what they need to know:

  • Why we don't hurt people
  • Why we're not criminal
  • What to do to avoid hurt (being hurt causing hurt, perpetuating hurt)
  • What to do if we are hurt (if we can't always avoid it)
  • What to do if we see someone else hurt

Because they already know it happened and they want to know why, if it can happen again, if it can happen here, etc.

I can only suggest what I see as truthful answers:

  • Yes it can happen again. It's been happening forever and will continue.
  • Theoretically it could happen to you, in practice it's unlikely to: there are two million people in Paris, 700 million in Europe, do the maths to see how likely it is to happen to you (this year).
  • Might be an opportunity to talk about violence in general (e.g. statistically people are a more likely to encounter domestic violence, bullying, robbery, than terrorism).

Some corollaries:

  • This is unlikely to happen to you
  • Some things will happen to you eventually
  • Why you should behave well even when other people don't.

They have obviously noticed the media reports and they saw our local TV tower lit up red-white-blue today

You could use that to explain solidarity.

Maybe spare a thought too for the (constant) victims of war in other countries; and/or the role that the media plays in war (and how the media reacts to terrorism, and that affects the media's consumers).

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    This is by far the best answer: children don't need, and can't, understand the motives of terrorists groups, of course. Explaining to them what are the practical effects of terrorism, and reassuring them about the odds is probably the way to go. – gaborous Nov 16 '15 at 23:34
  • Usually I use this idea in scientific contexts, but when--as in this case--the situation is not fully understood even to adults, it is often useful to follow with some form of "Well, nobody really knows for sure right now. If it interests you, maybe you can help find an answer as you grow and study." – GrandOpener Nov 17 '15 at 17:52
  • In case one question is "what are the attackers like?", this is a good non-sensationalist article that gives some insight into what seems to be a very common answer: thenation.com/article/… – Dronz Nov 17 '15 at 19:59
  • The way you say 'the just war doctrine may be wrong to someone young' sounds like you're blaming the child for disagreeing (since the implication appears to be that everyone who is well-adjusted will grow up to agree on it as being the 'right' viewpoint regarding war (or, in this application, certain kinds of violence or criminal behavior)) and feels condescending to people who beg to differ from that doctrine (whether it's because they're immature or because of the personal belief they always had (including as a child) and still have).... – Vandermonde Nov 24 '15 at 6:23
  • ... To take what is merely one person's or group's set of values or conception of morality (or culture, or language, or anything else arbitrary really) and assert it to be fact or in some sense 'elevated' is more than a little dogmatic and something one ought not do. I know you likely didn't intend to portray the just war theory as The One True View You Had Better Subscribe To -- heck, it even has 'theory' right in the name -- it's just that that part could have been phrased better so as to avoid coming off as such. – Vandermonde Nov 24 '15 at 6:23
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This is the line I've taken, for better or worse...

Like in school we trust teachers to be telling the truth about things in lessons. The people who attacked France, were told lies by their teachers but they really, really believe them - they think that we're bad people and they're good. So they want us to live their way.

The way they were taught tells them that it's okay to hurt people if you're doing it for good. But under it all, they are just normal people, just like us, who've been taught to be bullies - they want us to live their way and do what they say even when we don't agree or we think what they do is wrong. It's just that being grown-ups it means that when they hurt people they use more dangerous things like bombs and guns.

The chances of being caught up in an attack are very small, even if you live in one of the big cities that they like to target. For a start you have to be in the right place on the right day, at the right time of day. With approximately 2,270,000 people living in Paris (that doesn't include the visitors). 200 people were hurt or killed (last I heard), that's less than one person in every 11,000 people in Paris. Have a think about what 11,000 people look like - it's a lot of people!

Also, even if you happen to be caught up in an attack it's pretty likely though it might be horrible that you will probably survive. My wife was at Edgware Rd tube station in London when the 7/7 bombings happened and the thing is that, as well as her, hundreds of other people were there too. But only a few were hurt.

Yes. It's wrong and it's silly to us - but if your teacher told you the same lie, every day you'd start to believe it in the end.

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    I really hate this answer because the west is indescrimately bombing areas of iraq and syria and killing many civilians too. This idea that we are all innocent sweetness and light and they have been tricked into thinking we are bad simply isn't reality. The fact is we are the bullies, we invaded iraq and meddle in the middle east for oil. Half this problem is because we are not taking responsibility for our own actions. – JamesRyan Nov 16 '15 at 11:12
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    @JamesRyan Be careful about wading into politics on here. Aside from that: if you think "we're bullies and we deserve it" is the more accurate explanation, how would you have the conversation with children about it? (As it likely differs substantially from this Answer, please provide your own rather than responding in comments.) – Acire Nov 16 '15 at 11:19
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    @Erica well my point is a simplified wrong version is going to lead to the child being irrationally scared of foreigners. You need to make it balanced and say we have conflicting interests and not make it 'we are good, they are evil'. – JamesRyan Nov 16 '15 at 11:27
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    I think what he is trying to do is actually making the answer more abstract, to not make it about "the foreigners did it". The whole point is that everybody (even the children you are talking to) has some kind of teachers or role models and it might be they are teaching you the wrong thing. Not necessarily the wrong opinion, but maybe the wrong action to take. Which neither means that it is only the teachers of foreign people doing this (or able to do this), nor does it imply that any other teachers (or politicians) do/say/teach always the right thing. – skymningen Nov 16 '15 at 13:44
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    @JamesRyan - Thanks for your feedback. I am well versed in the full situation in the middle east as it happens and if you understood anything about the area you'd know it far predates any actions by the USA by a good century or more. My other half (mentioned in the answer) happens to work for an international human rights charity and has campaigned heavily on the situation in Syria as well as other countries in the region. Wild assumptions are not conducive to constructive feedback. – James Snell Nov 16 '15 at 15:42
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Like many topics, I think adults tend to be the ones whose ideas can't handle things like violence and conflict (and talking about such things with children), moreso than that children can't handle it. Children are quite capable of talking about violence, war, and sexuality, and they do so, even in Kindergarten, even if adults are carefully avoiding such topics with them.

That being so, I think the best thing adults can do is handle their own hangups about difficult situations, and be honest in answering children's questions. At least, for suitably developed adults, which is unfortunately rare. Adults tend to be mired and confused and upset about politics and so on. But if they can talk about the basic facts in a simple way, it can be useful to children.

Answer the questions they actually have. So, probably not geopolitics or deconstruction of the term terrorism and how it used to include violence by governments.

"... Because they already know it did happen and they want to know why, if it can happen again, if it can happen here, etc ..."

So I'd think of what my best human-level answers are, if I even know, and be honest. In my case, this might look like:

Why? "Good question. We don't really know because we don't know the people who did it, or why they did it. But people sometimes get confused by anger, or desire, or lies, and sometimes think they have to attack other people. It's very sad, especially for the people they attack, especially when those people don't even know why they're being attacked."

If it can happen again? "Yes. The world is a very large place full of many people, and many good and some bad things happen every day. When it happens to people we know and like, people feel upset and so they talk about it to let their feelings out."

If it can happen here? "It's possible, but I really don't think it will."

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Apologies for the lateness of this one; didn't have time to finish it last night: When we attempt to couch a difficult discussion like this in order to avoid frightening children or instilling toxic ideas about the world, we try to simplify the topic by removing a lot of the nuance, and ultimately end up with something that's even more effective at instilling toxic ideas about the world than the complicated reality was.

So, my real recommendation, whatever you lean towards saying, is to step back and take a little time to meditate on what that way of framing the discussion suggests about the world and the people in it. I will attempt to practice what I preach. Because the motivations are so complex and varied, I don't think it's particularly useful to explore them unless you think your children can handle doing so with a fair amount of depth/nuance. But, I do think it's still a good opportunity to talk about patterns in how people behave, and lay a foundation they'll be able to use to better understand things like this as they grow.

I think it might be nice to start by talking about how we see things differently from each other depending on our own experiences (depending on age, it may be good to help them unpack that our "experience" is a tree watered by things that happen to us, with deep roots in what our parents/family/leaders/friends/society think, what we see in news/movies/books, learn in school, etc.), and how there are almost as many different ways to see the world as there are people in it. It would be great to connect this with how the people involved saw/thought/felt about a recent disagreement in the children's own lives.

If you have such an example, this is an ideal time to talk out how the involved parties misunderstand why the others behave the way they do, but still respond as if they know what what the other is thinking. And how we usually have a story that justifies why we behaved the way we did.

From here, you can talk about how people tend to spend more time with others who see things similarly, and less time with people who see things very differently. You can probably even get them to volunteer some examples of groups like this in their grade at school. Because we see things in a way that feels "right", given our experiences, it's easy to think the other ways of seeing something are "wrong". When we don't spend time with people who see things differently, we never learn how their experiences have led them to see things the way they do.

Instead, we try to imagine how we could see things the way they do--but because we think they are wrong, we'll come up with an answer for how we could believe the wrong thing. Answers like "I must've been lied to", or "I must have been stupid/ignorant/naive/young/impressionable", or "I would have to be a bad person to think like that".

This next turn takes us into the rockiest terrain, I think, because we're starting to touch on feelings I suspect kids will have more trouble relating to. I guess a good place to start is with the idea that different people find different types of violence acceptable. Some people's experience has taught them that violence is never the right course of action, that violence is okay in immediate self-defense. That violence against death-row inmates is okay, or that it's okay to do violence for "noble" causes, or to express anger, obtain vengeance, or even just that it's acceptable to use violence to get what you want. This is a "big" point, so I think it's good to make a lot of connections and examples.

First I would turn this back on the way our "experience" is influenced by long chains of people influencing each other for thousands of years--our cultural history--and explain that different people in different places find different types of violence more or less acceptable based on that history. If it is age-appropriate, you could frame this in terms of how different countries have developed a different sense of how animals should be treated. You could also approach this from a corporal punishment angle. In some countries, it isn't acceptable to use violence to punish a criminal. In other countries, it's acceptable to use violence to kill criminals convicted of the worst crimes (some countries justify this violence by making it as painless as possible; others still use pretty painful means.) In still other countries, it's acceptable to cut off the hand of someone caught stealing.

I would also try to immediately relate the acceptability of violence back to both the disagreement example (all the better if it involved inappropriate violence), and to the way people group together around what we think. Aside from heat-of-the-moment violence, we usually talk ourselves into the acceptability of the violent act before we commit it, but those we commit it against almost always see it as unjust. While we tend to see the violence other people commit as "wrong" because we don't see how they came to find it acceptable, we see our own violence as justified. I think this is an okay time to talk about war, and explain that people on every side of a war feel they are right, and typically that the others are wrong for trying to do them violence.

So, Paris. I think it's okay to say that we can't really know exactly what experiences led each attacker to do it, nor can we know exactly how they justified it to themselves. We can (and many will) try to come up with reasons, but these will just be people who don't understand the attackers trying to decide what would have to have gone wrong in their own lives for them to do such a "wrong" thing. Some people will think that perhaps believing in the same religion or being from the same part of the world might be enough. Other people will imagine causes like having an extremist teacher of their religion, or outrage over the wars Western countries have fought in the Middle East. Tell them what we know:

A group of people who see the world in a similar way found each other, shut out people who don't see things the same way, and convinced themselves that it was acceptable or even "good" to do violence to others. Tell them that the group of people they belong to "says" why its members do violence to others, but remind them that this is part of the story these people tell themselves in order to justify that violence. That the people who make up the group all have their own reasons, based on their own experiences, for being there. That each of these people ultimately chose to shut out other ways of seeing the world and the people who see it in those ways. That the story they tell about why they do this will be hard to understand unless we try to learn their circumstances and experiences.

This is a good time to explain that some people think we shouldn't try to understand those who do senseless violence like this. Explain the obvious: all violence looks senseless if you can't understand how it was justified. Tell them that it's important to try to understand how people felt justified in committing violence like this, because some of those reasons might point to things we can fix about the world. Remind them that even if some of those reasons make sense, that doesn't mean the violence is excusable.

To the future, I think it's good to be honest: something like this will certainly happen again. While I understand the statistics-based approaches some answers suggest, I'm not sure how much statistical reasoning will help at this age. Since that ground has been well-trod, I'll suggest an alternative. Tell them that the chance is very small, but that, if they are still afraid, you can help them come up with some ideas for how they can improve the world in ways that make things like this less likely. The best ways to protect ourselves are to make sure violence isn't the easiest way to get our attention and understanding, and to make sure we don't let people use violence to provoke us into responses which cause even more people to agree with how the attackers see the world.

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For grade-school ages children, I don't think it's actually necessary to fully explain the motivations of the terrorists. For the younger children, it's enough to say that there are "bad people" in the world who try to hurt other people.

For older kids (junior-high or so depending on their intelligence), you might explain that the terrorists are trying to set up a fight between Islamic people (Muslims) and "us" (the Westerners); most Muslims are just people who want to get along, but the terrorists want to make us hate all the Muslims so that they would have to fight us, (and the terrorists want to be in charge of the Islamic fighters).

Only for the oldest kids might you get into the prior history, where the Western nations have not been very nice to Muslims, and have gotten some of them quite mad at us. Even most of the people we've hurt would rather make peace than fight, but the terrorists would rather hurt us back, so they're trying to push both sides into a war.

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