Why Are We Fighting?
How to talk to kids about war.
by Liza Featherstone
September 14, 2009
A t breakfast, my three-year-old, Ivan, examines the front page of the newspaper: a picture of U.S. troops in Iraq, brandishing guns. “What’s this, Mommy?” he asks. I say, “It’s a picture of war. People are fighting. It’s a bad situation.” He studies the picture for a while, and points to the soldiers’ faces. “But these are not bad guys,” he says.
Shopping for a sunhat at Target, we find the boys section – even the toddler gear – thoroughly militarized. “I don’t think so, sweetie,” I say, as Ivan cheerfully holds up a desert-ready camouflage hat. “To me, those colors look like war. I don’t like that.” He inspects the hat, finding it a stylish signifier of big-boyhood. “I like war,” he says, with the tone of one politely agreeing to disagree. At the Children’s Place, a similarly bellicose scene awaits us: all the hats are for little Marines. This time, my son anticipates my objections: “Too much war?” he asks. “Yes,” I agree. “Some people think war is good,” he observes, complicating, as usual, my simplifications.
The United States has, for years now, been embroiled in two overseas wars that most adults don’t even discuss with one another. Unlike the Vietnam War, or World War II, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t subjects of daily kitchen table conversation. Diane Levin, a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College and co-author of a forthcoming paper called “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Or Is It?” argues that despite the silence, the current wars are still affecting our kids, who need to be able to talk with us about them. But most of us have no idea how to address such disturbing material, especially when our children are very young.
“Like a lot of difficult topics – death, divorce, sex – parents try to avoid it,” says Judith Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University who has researched children and parents’ discussions about war. “And, as with these other topics, they think they can have ‘the talk’ and it’s done. But it needs to be ongoing, an open dialogue.”
The first thing a child needs to know is that she will be okay. As Nancy Carlsson-Paige, author of Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Road Map for Raising Confident, Creative and Compassionate Kids (Plume, 2009) and professor of early childhood education at Lesley University, observes, “Children this age are egocentric. They are concerned most of all with their own safety.” But one of the challenges of explaining scary world events to preschool-aged kids is that they can’t understand distance. “Where is the war?” Ivan asked recently. I explained that it’s “far away.” He looked thoughtful and says, “Yeah. It’s not out on the sidewalk.” But phrases like “far away” don’t always reassure preschool children, because they don’t understand geography. (Ivan told us last week that he was taking the “B20P” bus to “Africa,” adding, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”) Diane Levin recalls, from her research, a four-year-old girl who knew that her grandparents lived “far away” in Philadelphia; learning that the war was far away, she worried that her grandparents would get hurt.
More confusingly for adults, as Myers-Walls points out, “death doesn’t mean much to younger children.” They don’t understand that it’s permanent. The other day Ivan was narrating a made-up story as he played with his toy cars, rendering a seemingly grisly scenario in a matter-of-fact, sing-song voice: “The people are going away to fight in a war and get killed. Good-bye, see you later!”
Given such intellectual limitations – and their well-known emotional volatility – some feel that preschool-aged kids can’t handle much knowledge about the reality of war. “It’s better to try to protect them from it,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige. When possible, keep them away from news reports, especially television, which is scary and difficult for them to process. Carlsson-Paige does not think Ivan needs to know, at three, what those camouflage hats are about. She warns, “As well as you explain it, it’s going into a mind that can’t really understand. It isn’t until the middle of elementary school that they can make sense of war as a real thing.” Carlsson-Paige acknowledges that this advice might bother socially-conscious parents: “I feel bad that kids all over the world are suffering because of wars our country started, and I’m saying, ‘Protect American kids from it.’ But it doesn’t benefit them to learn about war.”
Camilo Meija disagrees. An Iraq war veteran whose daughter was four when he returned from combat, he says, “The best way to protect kids is to tell them the truth, because they may have to decide whether to join the military someday.” Meija, who refused to go back to Iraq and served time in prison as a conscientious objector, told his daughter Samantha that he was going to jail because he didn’t want to fight in a war. When she asked him what war was, he told her, “War is when you go to another country, you kill other people and they try to kill you.” She wanted to know if children, mommies and daddies get killed, and he said yes. “Why are you going to jail for not wanting to do that?” she demanded. “That’s when it got complicated,” he recalls, “because that’s about politics.”