Some preschool and school-age children will react to the war and the likely terror alerts to follow – some with anxiety, others with little anxiety but lots of interest. Other children will experience little anxiety and very little interest. Some will be involved if they have family members deployed or awaiting deployment, while others may react if they have families involved in anti-war activities.
Our responsibility as parents and teachers is to:
The War and Children’s Play
- Recognize that every child is an individual
- Reassure children of their own safety and security
- Help children play and talk through their feelings and understandings
- Help children participate in global events, in ways that are meaningful to them
It is natural for children to reflect events around them. If war or the threat of terror is dominating the talk of adults and the news, young children are likely to express their concern or interest in their questions, play, and art.
For many older boys, more aggressive play and talk is likely, as well as an attraction to weapons and the people engaged in struggles. The best reaction is to avoid expressing shock and horror. Instead, explain why you find nothing romantic or positive about war, even in play.
Answering Children’s Questions About the War
- Understand that the desire, even the need to play at being the powerful hero, is developmentally appropriate. It may be wise to let children play hero and villain to work through their issues, but try to discourage weapon play.
- Encourage other hero play. Help children identify with rescues, pilots, doctors and nurses, and soldiers who are helping the wounded and putting out fires.
This is a very hard subject because adults don’t always agree on the answers. Adults should be prepared with the facts of the situation and the appropriate language. The key points for talking to any child are to:
- Tailor your response to the individual child - keep in mind the child's age, personality and level of interest.
- Ask what the child knows and is thinking about; answer their questions without over-explaining and providing more details than necessary.
- Help them understand that war is a terrible thing, regardless of whether one believes it is necessary or not. Probably the best we can do is to tell children in a manner appropriate for their developmental level that sometimes the only thing that most people think we can do to stop very bad people or governments is to use military power.
- While parents should use children’s questions and statements as “teachable moments” to impart their thinking and values about national and international issues, teachers should help children with any anxiety, confusion or interest without expressing their own political views about the war.
Younger children may have a very different understanding of events that they hear about or see in the media. Questions that young children may have are:
Q: What is war?
A: Sometimes whole groups of people or countries, after much talking, still can’t decide how to get along. They have armies that fight each other. Don’t worry. Our army is very strong and works hard to make sure that we are all safe.
Q: Will war come here?
A: The war that people are talking about is very far away. (Find out what the child thinks “far away” means.) Our army and government are working very hard to make sure that war doesn’t happen here or anywhere near us. You are safe here.
Q: Why do people hurt others or kill?
A: There are some people in this world who are very angry and haven’t learned how to live with people they don’t agree with. They live in different places. And sometimes they do terrible, awful things to hurt people. But there are many more people who do know how to get along, and they are all over the world working hard to stop these people who do terrible things.
Q: Do children get hurt or killed?
A: We hope that no children get hurt. Armies don’t have children in them and soldiers try very hard to keep children from getting hurt.
School-age children understand what is real and what is permanent, but they can lack perspective. They are learning how events fit together and want to understand how things happen and what impact events will have. They have a lot of questions and expect honest answers about details that matter to them. They understand loss and can identify with the people directly affected by events. They think about what life is like for others. Their fears are real and realistic, and they often focus on the fact that bad things could happen to them. School-age children are interested in rules and right and wrong, good and evil, laws and law breakers. In times of crisis, dramatic heroes and villains hold fascination for them. Increasingly, peers play a larger role in shaping thinking, feelings, and reactions to events. Questions that school-age children may have include:
Q: Why is there war?
A: What do you think? There are many disagreements throughout the world, and people do fight and go to war over them. But it is almost always as a last resort. Sometimes the only thing that most people think we can do to stop very bad people or bad governments is to use military power and force them to stop.
Q: Why do people kill? Why is war OK?
Human behavior is hard for children to understand and war is confusing. How can a terrible thing – killing and war – be justified?
A: What do you think? I think it’s sad that people get hurt and killed when armies fight, because some people or countries don’t know how to get along without fighting or know how make peace. There are some people who do very bad things and we don’t know to stop them without armies or police.
Try to maintain the child’s idealism and optimism about the future.
Q: Are children killed?
A: We hope that very few people will get hurt or killed and that fighting is confined to armies. In a war, it’s very sad that innocent people do get hurt, including children. We hope that our army is trying to do everything that it can to make sure that children and innocent people are not being killed. But war is really awful, and that’s why we want your generation to learn alternatives to war.
There’s no reason to dwell on the horrors of war. The important point is to stress that it is a last resort and something to try and eliminate.
Q: Will the war come here?
Older children can make the connection between war abroad and terrorism at home. They may be more worried that war will come here, through missiles or terror.
A: The war is far away and our government is working hard to make sure that terrorism will not happen here.
Q: What about terrorism? What are we going to do to be safe?
Children may become concerned about safety in response to efforts to be prepared in the event of a terrorist attack. The best response is a matter-of-fact precautionary explanation.
A: We are going to take precautions just in case anything should happen, for the same reason we wear seat belts or have smoke detectors. We think that there is almost no chance of anything happening, but we want to make sure that we are safe.
Q: Why are people protesting the war?
Children may have trouble understanding that adults don’t all share the same feelings about something as important as war. Children may not understand how someone could support the United States and not support the war.
A: Some people feel war is a terrible thing, but believe it is sometimes necessary; while others feel strongly that war, or this war, is not necessary and bad for the United States. Some people want the government to change its mind, stop the war, and bring the troops home.
Q: Why do other countries oppose us?
A: Why do you think other countries might disagree with us? People and countries all over the world have different ideas and feelings about the United States, Iraq, war, and what is the best thing to do when war is possible. It’s very complicated getting the whole world to agree, maybe like getting everybody in your school to agree. Some think there ought to be more compromise, and others think that the United States needed to act right now. Some think that Iraq is not really as much a threat right now as the United States government believes.
Q: I’m worried about my dad (mom, brother, other loved one) in military service. Will he be safe?
Children need honesty and reassurance appropriate for their developmental level. If a parent or other family member or friend is in the military, say something like:
A: He/she has a job to do and is trained to do that job. We are all a little scared and will miss him/her a lot when he/she is gone – and he/she is really going to miss us too. We will pray (or hold him/her in our thoughts) every day and write postcards, draw pictures, keep a journal, and make a book of his/her letters. We can put markers on a map and trace his/her journeys to show us where he/she is.
Helping the Troops
There has been a huge outpouring of support for the men and women in the military. Projects can be built around sending e-mails or thank you notes or fundraising small amounts of money to provide support for men and women in the military. To send:
Emergency relief for military families at home: Army Emergency Reliefhttp://www.aerhq.org
Marine Relief Society http://www.nmcrs.org
Air Force Aid Society http://www.afas.org
Coast Guard Mutual Assistance http://www.cgmahq.org