Why Are We Fighting? How to talk to kids about war.By Liza Featherstone for Babble.com.Liza Featherstone
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.”
Why Are We Fighting?
How to talk to kids about war.
by Liza Featherstone
September 14, 2009
Asked about the possibility that preschool-aged children are too young to understand war, Meija, who is now active in Iraq Veterans Against the War, emphatically demurs: “The other side doesn’t wait. Look at all the toys, war-related games, camouflage clothes.” Print ads tout Curad Camp Camo bandages as “the Cure for your little soldier.” Many of these products are aimed at very young children, who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy: in research for their co-authored book The War-Play Dilemma, Levin and Carlsson-Paige found that some kids thought that the Power Rangers were going over to fight in Iraq.
The aggressive marketing of war-related products functions as effective recruiting for state-sponsored violence, by desensitizing kids to its horrors and making it look like fun. But if parents told kids the truth from an early age, Meija asks, “Who in the world would join the military? If you knew you would suffer post-traumatic stress, watch your best buddy get killed?” The excitement of the warrior fantasy isn’t something people necessarily outgrow. “There were men in my unit who were so eager to go to war,” Meija recalls. “They had these very romantic notions about it, but couldn’t wait to get out when they realized that bullets fly both ways.”
Don’t say, ‘President Bush was a bad guy,’ because that’s scary. As with other political questions, many parents wonder how much to tell young children about their own views about war. “When we go off on our own opinion, we miss the boat,” Nancy Carlsson-Paige cautions. “Making them think like us is not the job.” Language adults use to express their opinions is often too abstract for children: in her book Taking Back Childhood, Carlsson-Paige recalls observing a teacher going “on and on about peace,” until a child finally asked, “A piece of what?” Similarly, while parents often assume that their kids have patriotic feelings – and schools try to instill such sentiments by having them make flags and write letters to the troops – Judith Myers-Walls says young children don’t understand any of that. I believe her: the other day, eating a cookie decorated in American flag colors for July Fourth, Ivan asked if I remembered “when we saw people running on America.” After some confusion I realized he was remembering the New York Marathon.
But others feel parents should pass on their values, whatever those may be. “You should help them process what they’re seeing, and try to influence what they’re learning,” says Diane Levin, who nonetheless emphasizes the importance of expressing opinions in an age-appropriate way. “Don’t say, ‘President Bush was a bad guy,'” Levin warns, “because that’s scary.” If you’re against the war, it’s better instead to relate the situation to the child’s own life. You might say, about the warring parties, Levin suggests, “I wish they would use their words and cooperate like we do in our family.”
While parents often worry that talking with kids about war will make them feel overwhelmed, research shows that kids who have such conversations feel more optimistic, says Myers-Walls. But experts agree that such conversations should respond to your particular child’s needs. “Stay very, very close to their questions,” advises Carlsson-Paige. “We’re not going to give them information they can’t manage.” One way to respond to a child’s first question about war is, “What do you already know about that?” Or, “What do you think?” Such open-ended questions help you find out how much information they already have, and also to take their emotional temperature: Are they asking because they’re afraid? Excited? Sad? Curious?
I’m still not sure how to explain those creepy hats. But in the end, what parents say in these conversations may not be so important. What’s most critical is that when it comes up, we don’t change the subject or otherwise discourage the conversation. “Stay connected,” Diane Levin emphasizes. “The single most important thing is that he feels safe talking about this, that he knows he can ask you a difficult question.” And that’s not always easy, as Camilo Meija knows. “When you have to explain it to a kid,” he says, “you realize how horrible war really is.”