(RNS) The massacre of 145 people, nearly all of them children, at a Pakistani school on Tuesday (Dec. 16) is almost too horrible for adults to talk about, much less children.
But what if your Muslim child brings it up? What if you want to open the discussion?
Does the fact that the gunmen -- members of the Pakistani Taliban -- consider themselves devout Muslims make the conversation more difficult?
What about the fact that some people are going to blame Muslims in general for atrocities committed by a few?
This is not the first time militants have targeted children. Among other incidents, in 2012, they shot teenager Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani champion of girls' education, who survived, and in April, the extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian girls, also because of their objections to educating girls.
We asked Muslim parents how they handle these conversations with their children. Here are some of their answers:
Teach them about Islam
Muslim parents want their children, and all children, to understand that Islam does not condone such horrific violence -- just the opposite. When the news shows a beheading or suicide bombing committed in the name of Islam, you don't want to have to start explaining your religion. Better to give them a good Islamic education from the start.
"It's critical to teach children the facts about their faith," said Dr. Saud Anwar, a pulmonologist and the mayor of South Windsor, Conn.
Corey Saylor, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his children, 12 and 14, responded to the massacre in Pakistan as any decent human beings would -- with revulsion. The children were taught that no religion -- or serious philosophy of life -- could call these killings an act of faith.
That's because, Saylor continued, his family has been having serious talks about these topics since the girls were small. "At my house, everybody has to be at the dinner table, even if you're not hungry, because that's where we discuss these things," he said.
"As Muslims we are taught when we see such tragedies to pray for the souls of the deceased," said Saima Sheikh of Dallas, spokeswoman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the U.S. That's what she tells her 16-year-old-son, who is the age of many of the students killed at the Pakistani school. When violence erupts -- perpetrated by the Taliban in Pakistan or by a mentally ill gunman at a Connecticut elementary school -- Sheikh encourages her son to "increase his prayers."
"Prayer is a weapon that protects us from sin and at times of great peril like now, we should pray more fervently for peace," she said.
Don't underestimate your kids
The topic is horrific, but that doesn't mean older children can't have a straightforward and calm discussion about it, said Saylor. So talk to them, he said, but listen to them too.
"I’m always impressed by children's ability to understand things at levels that sometimes parents don’t give them credit for," he said. "So I talk directly with my children and then listen and answer their questions in a manner that respects their age and also respects the fact that they are human beings who can think for themselves."
While the newspapers are full of stories about violence committed in the name of Islam, it's important for children to understand that evildoers "are not limited to those who claim to be part of our faith," said Nihad Awad, CAIR's national executive director, and the father of three grown children.
That may seem obvious. But it can be frustrating for a parent angry about a horrific act of violence to also have to deal with a backlash against Muslims generally. Saud's advice: Check your anger, because it doesn't help to carry that around, "and draw the lines between right and wrong."
YS/MG END MARKOE