Parents for a Taliban-free youth

How to tell if your child is a future John Walker Lindh.

By Tom Mcnichol
Published February 4, 2002 11:26PM (EST)

The three most dangerous words a parent can utter in response to the Taliban epidemic are: "Not my kid." Today, religious extremism poses a threat to every American family, and no child is immune from the temptations of the Taliban. The information in this pamphlet is offered in the hope of helping parents keep their kids happy, healthy and Taliban-free.

Common Signs That Your Child May Have Joined the Taliban

When teens start to "experiment" with the Taliban, there are usually warning signs. Unfortunately, many parents write off these signals as normal adolescent rebellion. Often, parents will stay in this state of denial until their son (or, increasingly, daughter) is arrested by U.S. Special Forces and put on trial. By then, it's too late. Just ask John Walker Lindh's parents.

If your child exhibits two or more of these symptoms, chances are he's already a member of the Taliban:

Dramatic changes in clothing or hairstyle

Sudden bursts of anger

Loss of interest in popular music

Really dirty face

Can't keep a girlfriend/boyfriend

Poor grades, especially in Civics

Bloodshot eyes

Wears fake beard (boys) or full-body veil (girls)

Anti-American slogans in notebooks and/or school yearbook

Dramatic changes in diet, refuses to eat pork or "unclean" foods

"Hides" in cave-like bedroom

Impaired capacity to reason

Feelings of paranoia

Distorted sense of history

Talks of suicide or "glorious martyrdom"

Unexplained late-night international phone calls

Vague about social activities and company kept

Speaks fluent Urdu

Always blaming others for problems

Why Do Kids Join the Taliban?

Many parents are shocked when they first learn their child (or increasingly, children) have joined the Taliban. "Who's to blame?" many parents ask. And then: "No, besides us."

As parents search for answers, they frequently point the finger of blame somewhere else. There's the media, which glamorizes the Taliban lifestyle with constant coverage while glossing over the dangers, such as the loss of an eye or limb. There's peer pressure in school: Kids join the Taliban because it's "cool," what the "in" crowd is doing. And there's America's Mideast policy, which upsets even teens.

Ultimately, parents need to take responsibility for their children. You may think you're doing your kid a favor by letting him "explore his spirituality" in Yemen, but you're playing right into the hands of the enemy.

What Parents Can Do

Talk to your kids Don't expect your children to learn about the dangers of the Taliban in school. Many schools don't even have a Taliban-awareness campaign in place, thanks to the liberal courts.

Sit your kids down and give them the facts. If you dabbled in the Taliban as a youth and then quit, reinforce your decision and encourage your children to follow your example. Say that religious extremist groups are much stronger than in your day and far more dangerous. Be honest. Make sure your kids understand that you were wrong and that they should avoid the Taliban at all costs. And if you're still in the Taliban, get help for yourself first. Your local FBI office is a good place to start.

Provide age-appropriate information Be sure that the information you offer fits your child's age. A typical 6-year-old need only know that the people in the Taliban are "bad." A few years later, your child will come to know them as "the evil ones." Teens are old enough to be told how America's support of Saudi Arabia greatly compromises the moral authority of the war on terrorism. If your child has questions about U.S. Mideast policy, admit that you don't fully understand it either.

Encourage less dangerous activities It's a fact: Kids who are involved in healthy activities are far less likely to join the Taliban. Provide your children with acceptable alternatives to terrorism. It's especially effective to have your kids participate in activities banned by the Taliban, such as listening to music, dancing, singing, flying a kite or having fun.

Promote a positive self-image Kids who feel good about themselves don't need the Taliban to make them feel good. You contribute to your child's positive self-image by praising his nonviolent achievements, correcting inappropriate behavior before it becomes treasonous and practicing "tough love" when he brings automatic weapons into the house. A child who's comfortable with himself is far less likely to leave home to join an ill-equipped militia halfway around the world.

Be alert Above all, keep in mind the four things you should know about your children at all times: 1) Where they are, 2) Who they're with, 3) What they're doing, and 4) Which side they're rooting for in the war on terrorism. The Taliban is willing to take the time to gather this information. Are you?

Tom Mcnichol

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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