Children and War

The Gulf War had started the night before. I'd just gotten off the phone with a friend who had lost the hearing to get his job back. My eight year old remarked: "It's strange. Things are going bad in the world. Things are going bad for John. But everything's going fine for me."

I didn't know what to say. Was it all right that he was feeling fine or was it a sign of isolation and cold-heartedness? Was I doing a good job of protecting his childhood, or a bad job of communicating how other people's pain is ours as well? These are hard times for all of us, and there are many more questions than answers, but I've found a few places where I'm pretty sure I'm on solid ground.

Offer safety. Perhaps most important, we can let our children know what we have every intention of keeping them safe. They can relax and go about their own business; we'll take care of the family's welfare and security. I think it makes sense to do our worrying (and our television news watching--which is just about the same thing) in private. If we're too worried to hide it--and children are very perceptive--we should probably acknowledge it rather than pretending, but go on to reassure them that we'll take care of the family, and they don't have to worry about it.

Offer information. We can take our cues here from what they ask. Younger children, so long as they know they are safe, may not request much, and that's fine. We can provide information at the level that they request it, always trying to sort out the facts from the opinions (and listening for when endless questions become a call for reassurance). It helps to let older children know that there are lots of different points of view on this war. ("The generals seem to be thinking this; some people in this country think this; my best thinking right now is this.")

Offer humanity. War is an ugly business, but we can help by not making it uglier. There are no faceless evil enemies. There are leaders who do things we don't agree with (our included), and many ordinary people (like us) who get caught up in the process. We can talk with our children about the Middle East--about the history we know, the people we've met (if we've been so lucky), the way the language looks, the art that comes form there. We can emphasize our common humanity. The families who live in Baghdad and Tel Aviv are very much like our family and the families we know (and being bombed feels the same, regardless of where you live). Our children need to feel connected to others around the world, not cut off from them.

Offer a model. One of the predominant feelings that his war inspires is powerlessness. It is so big and so much out of our control, and it makes us feel so little. Yet it makes sense for each one of us to figure out how we want to respond, what we can do--and to include our children in that action. Whether it be standing in a vigil line for peace, or writing to service people overseas, our children need to see us as thinking, caring and acting citizens of the world.

Offer life. It can be hard to feel okay about enjoying our own lives unreservedly when such terrible things are happening in the world. Yet the world needs love, joy, and affirmation of life now more than ever. Now is the time, and with our families and friends is the place, to love deeply, play hard, create beauty, and find joy with those around us.