The new year started off with a bang. Literally. We’ve only just marked off the first week and already I’ve found myself having to explain terrorism to my wide-eyed, blissfully innocent, first grade son.
On New Year’s Day, a gunman opened fire at a busy bar in the center of Tel Aviv where we live, killing two and injuring several others and subsequently killing a taxi driver in north Tel Aviv. Both the teacher and school principal of my son’s school encouraged all parents to explain “the situation” as best as we could to our children, before they’d probably hear about it from other kids at school (and presumably wouldn’t know how to make sense of it).
What exactly is “the situation”? Hell, I can’t even make sense of it myself, but somehow, I’m expected to explain the situation to my child—the same child, mind you, who can’t quite grasp the concept yet of how to talk on the phone to someone, let alone talk about stranger danger. The last time we were encouraged to talk about stranger danger to him, it resulted in our usually friendly son absolutely refusing to talk—as in not even saying hello or goodbye—to his great-grandmother, most of his aunts, uncles, and several cousins, simply because he claimed to not know them.
My children’s kindergarten and adjacent school are located in the neighborhood where the taxi driver was found shot dead and the attacker’s cell phone was found in a street nearby. It was widely believed at first that the terrorist was bunking down somewhere in the area of north Tel Aviv, armed, dangerous, deranged, and possibly plotting his next attack.
The Mayor of Tel Aviv told media over the weekend that parents should send their kids to school “only if they want”—and if they don’t want to, he can empathize. Not exactly an assuring message.
Terrorists paralyze their target population with fear and anxiety. All weekend, the parents’ WhatsApp groups were abuzz with parents deliberating over whether to send their kids to school or not. There were those who were of the “absolutely not!” mindset, while others wanted to demand more security guards, and others would agree to send their kids only if they wouldn’t be allowed outside to play during break. With two kids (6 and 3 years old), I belong to two such WhatsApp groups, which means two separate lots of Jewish neurotic parents (and don’t even get me started on the family WhatsApp group!). The non-stop messages from anxious, stressed-out parents began to make me more nervous than the non-stop news reports about the killer (who, as I write this, is still at large).
To get away from the unremitting WhatsApp messages, and to see what other parents were thinking, I checked on some of the Israeli/Anglo/Tel Aviv parenting groups I belong to on Facebook. There, not only did I find parents from both camps, but what’s more, I came across those who decried those of us who were even considering sending our kids to school, imploring us to get our heads examined.
In the morning, the school communicated an official message to all parents asking us not to bring children to school/kindergarten until after 10:00 a.m. in order to cooperate with the efforts of the police and security personnel who were staking out the school grounds and nearby vicinity for the mentally disturbed and armed terrorist missing in action.
This message did not go down well. Ye old WhatsApp was alight again, this time with a vengeance.
Falling back on the Mayor’s cautionary advice was not proving to be of any help at all. My husband said I should decide what I felt was best to do. Parental responsibility in Israel is very different from how it might be elsewhere. It’s very much left up to parents to decide for ourselves, which invariably leads to lots of consulting among other parents in social media groups, which can lead down a slippery slope of second-guessing one’s own judgments. How on earth did our parents make important decisions about raising us as children before social media and chat forums existed?
In recent weeks, when the Los Angeles authorities and Belgium authorities shut down their respective school systems because of a terror warning or threat, I imagine that would have made the decision-making process for those parents much easier. Couldn’t some authority in Tel Aviv just decide for the rest of us what course of action was the appropriate one to take, and that way we could have carried on with our day, knowing that we were doing the right thing? Would this have been so hard? I mean, why was I being asked to handle fate and call the shot on what was the right thing to do for my child? How was I to know, and who was I to decide this?
And then it occurred to me how foolish this thought was. Why, of course I am the one to call the shots on my child. Since when are we ever really given all the information with which to make proper decisions as parents? Ultimately, it always boils down to basic, raw, mother-bear, gut instincts.
Keeping up with a sense of normalcy and routine, despite upsets to our everyday lives, is part of what builds our resilience. So, with this in mind, and after being questioned curiously by our son as to why we were moving so slowly and watching movies at this late hour of the morning rather than hurrying out to school before the bell rings, my husband and I looked at each other and realized there was no point in putting it off any longer. After a pregnant pause, we both took a deep breath and with one fell swoop we consciously sent our son’s sweet innocence packing.
We explained, in simple terms, that there’s this bad man on the loose, possibly somewhere in our city, and because he did something bad and has a gun and cannot be trusted, there’s going to be a lot of police and security around the school looking for him, and many kids probably won’t turn up. But not to worry.
For a second, I thought we may have made a mistake. Our wide-eyed boy listened intently, digesting every word. He unequivocally accepted the information we relayed to him and asked no questions. It left me wondering if I had possibly succeeded in explaining terrorism in less than two minutes to a 6-year-old, or if nothing I’d said had actually sunk in. Only time would tell.
“Since only a few kids are going to go to class today,” he determined, thoughtfully, “then it means I definitely have to go as well, so that they won’t feel alone.”
Often, our first instincts are indeed our best.
And with that, we got to school after 10 a.m. as instructed, where the TV news cameras were rolling, the Headmaster was being interviewed at the entrance, helicopters were circling, and undercover police were walking around looking hardly undercover. It was no surprise that less than half the kids showed up to school.
“How was school today?” I asked in the afternoon (generally interested this time). My son excitedly recounted all the fascinating details his friend had told them about the terrorist – A.K.A – The Bad Guy – like how he’d tried to steal a gun once, and that he’d been in jail (“a real jail, where they don’t give you anything except dry bread”). His story-telling flowed like a mashed-up, child’s version of a Tarantino film, with no discernible beginning, middle or end, and attention given to random details. “And The Bad Guy, he likes nuts. Like the mouse in the Gruffalo, who I told you was bad too, coz he’s a liar. Liars like nuts.” I asked how his smart friend knew all of this. “His dad’s a policeman.” I took a mental note of the kid’s name. “So what else did you do at school today?” I prodded, “Nothing much. Only 7 kids in the class came, so the teacher said she couldn’t teach because it wouldn’t be fair for everyone to miss out, so we just watched movies.”
Parenting is 50% guesswork and 50% second-guessing. And motherhood is a choice you make every day, to put someone else’s happiness, interests, and well-being ahead of your own, to teach the hard lessons, to do the right thing even when you’re not sure what the right thing is, and to forgive yourself, over and over again, for doing everything wrong.