Dave Hill: What do we tell the children?

The Family
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"Conall," I'd warned him gently as he'd contemplated building an assault course in the garden, "we might not have time for all this today."

"It's all right, Daddy," he'd reassured me. "I've still got two years and eight months left to finish them."

Then came that phone call. There'd been at least one bomb. The narrative was wrenched from Enid's grasp.

The problem of how to acclimatise children to the horrors of the world is now ever-present in a parent's life. The pervasiveness and starkness of bad news penetrates the thickest cotton-wool wrapping, seeps into their young lives as surely as it barges into ours. I'm not one to pine for lost "innocence" - give me wisdom over naïveté any time. But how do you best manage the inexorable process of their discovering that some baddies are very, very real - a process Thursday's events have accelerated ruthlessly?

My holding position was straightforward: I wouldn't mention the bombs to Conall until I'd confirmed that no one who both of us love was dead. But for the next couple of hours I left a radio on in his earshot. At two-ish, while gazing at a moistened tissue full of newly sown cress, he said: "Has something bad happened today?"

Confronted with this question, the dilemmas of answering any kid's inquiries of that kind were crystallised. We don't know what they're thinking, do we? We don't know what they already know or think they know. They can't always grasp that they are far more likely to get knocked down by a bus than blown up in one. How do you deal with their curiosity or disquiet? Too much candour may terrify them. Yet if you fob them off or fib you may leave them open to other children's mockery or whatever misinformation flows their way.

"There have been some explosions," I replied, nervous about using the word "bomb".

"Oh."

"And some people have been killed."

He didn't pursue the matter at the time - the cress appeared more interesting - and as he hadn't asked about Mummy or his big brothers (who'd all checked in safe by then). I decided not to mention them. Later on, though, as we went to fetch his nine-year-old sister Dolores from school as usual, he asked me why some ladies keep their faces covered up.

"Uh. So that men can't see them."

"Why?"

I won't reveal my inept reply, only my subsequent concern that somewhere inside Conall's earnest little head untutored connections had been forming between "explosions" that killed people and those ladies who can look at you while you can't look at them. Meanwhile, Dolores had been crying. Word about the bombs had found its way into her classroom and she wasn't the only one to torment herself with thoughts of tragedy: "Even some of the rude boys were crying," she told me on the way home.

Neither child has talked of terror since but they will do, just like children in every home. Some will be insouciant (or affect insouciance) and some will be morbidly enthralled. Others will be troubled deeply. A vox pop among acquaintances has revealed tweenies being teased about their mum having been killed and teenagers vowing to never travel by Tube again.

Even the most skilled parents may struggle to still such fears and find they are groping for the right degree of frankness and complexity of explanation for why there is cruelty in the world, and, perhaps most pressingly, why it is better not to blink when faced with the threat of cold-eyed savagery. It is as much a cause for mourning as a source of help that we adults are bewildered and scared by it too.

Dave Hill is a novelist

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