“So, is the Taliban still a thing?” and other tough questions from 10 year olds

This week we finished a book called Parvana’s Journey – a story about a 12-year-old girl who travels alone across Afghanistan in search of her mother. While we were reading, a student asked me if the Taliban was still around. The book was written in 2002, but we had just finished reading about Christopher Columbus and, for all my students knew, the Taliban was just as old a history.

“Yes,” I said, “the Taliban is still very much a thing.” As difficult as it is (especially when you are ten) to make sense of the horrible things humans do to one another and the hardships many face, the students finished the book (hopefully) understanding that it was real. Parvana, the protagonist, was not, but the struggles she faced as a young woman under Taliban control, as a lost child in a war-torn country, as an inhabitant of a camp for internally displaced people…those are real. And they are still happening.

Along with the book, we read a packet of articles with related content and many of the articles were about Malala Yousafzai and her fight for girls’ education.

“Wait – Malala was shot by the Taliban, but she lived in Pakistan. I thought the Taliban was in Afghanistan?” Ten year olds miss nothing.

I explained that there are actually two Talibans, one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. “What?!” They said. “How did the Taliban even start?”

This is the dilemma every educator faces. Children believe their teachers are the gatekeepers of all knowledge. They ask me questions about complex neuroscience. They expect me to be able to recall obscure historical facts. I have no problem admitting I don’t know something. The problem, really, is when I do know. Then, I have to ask…how much should I tell them? How much do they need to know? How much can they understand?

I explained that the Taliban started as Afghan refugees, as children who were displaced to Pakistan because their country was being occupied, who were indoctrinated into fanaticism. Raised to hate the superpowers who used their home country as a political puppet, they came back to a war-torn Afghanistan when they were men and took political control. The articles also discussed child marriage and honor killings and Boko Haram and ISIS and the kidnapping of school girls. Talking about history seems harmless enough, but these things are happening now. How much should I tell them? When do I redirect the conversation and when do I answer their questions with patience and candor?

Many of them told me about what happened in Paris. They had the same expression I remember wearing in 5th grade when on September 11th, 2001 I told my teacher that something had happened with planes in New York. She told me we weren’t going to talk about it. People got pulled out of school. My parents told me what happened after school while I was building a pyramid for social studies. I don’t remember what they said, but I remember not understanding the gravity of it. I couldn’t comprehend then that the world was going to change and the American political and social climate for the next 14 years would be dominated by fear. But then again, there has always been someone, some group, to fear.

These kids may not be able to fully comprehend what is happening in the world, but they will be the ones to grow up in an America we shape. An America that embraces refugees as neighbors, or one that chooses fear. I remembered a CNN piece I read over a year ago about the mass influx of children coming from Central America. Some called them ‘immigrants’ and some called them ‘refugees’. Semantics. They are people searching for freedom, hope, and safety and their fight is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. The language from that piece responding to the tens of thousands of children fleeing Central America is equally applicable to the conversation on Syrian refugees today:

Surely, we as Americans are capable of coming up with creative solutions that are compassionate as well as sensible, solutions that tell the world (and ourselves) that we still aspire to be good-hearted, noble but pragmatic people…moments inevitably come that define who we are as a people. As the saying goes, we may not be looking for trouble but trouble is looking for us. How we respond to these thousands upon thousands of desperate, destitute children is one of those moments.

Will we turn our backs, as we did so shamefully to those Jewish refugees years ago? Or will we live by our ideals? That is the choice we now face.

Or as the President of France so simply put it, “We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values.”

I don’t know what we should teach children about what is happening in the world. There are certain things I don’t know exactly how to explain because I can’t comprehend them myself. When they told me about Paris, I calmly said that I had also heard the news. I told them that there were other attacks in Beirut where people also died. I said that these were awful things and that we should feel very lucky to be safe and in school because there are so many people around the world who are not. There was one passage in Parvana’s Journey that struck me as particularly poignant, encapsulating the way childhood is destroyed by violence.

They watched as a group of planes streamed across a corner of the sky. A moment later there was a sound like thunder rumbling in the distance. Then they saw dust rise up from the far hills. The girls had seen these planes before. They were nothing special.

“Grownups killing each other,” Parvana said, and she turned away to look for her mother in the other direction. “I kill,” Leila said.

Parvana looked at her. “I kill pigeons,” Leila said. “I don’t like to do it, but it’s not hard. It must be harder to kill a goat or a donkey. Is it hard to kill a child?” she asked suddenly.

“It should be,” Parvana said, “but some people seem to find it awfully easy.”

I don’t know what to teach children about the world, but what I do know, above all else, is that we should start with empathy and build our way up to compassion because there are so many people (including a whole generation of children) around the world who need it and a lot of grown ups who seem to have forgotten.

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