Arms and the child

Today's young Americans are growing up in an atmosphere of public concern about nuclear arms more pervasive than even the ban-the-bomb outcry decades ago. How can they be helped to understand the threat and the remedies without the fear and despair that work against solutions?

Schools are taking a role. There are increasing headlines such as ''Curriculum Addresses Fear of Atom War.''

Clerics are taking a role. The morality of nuclear weapons and of war itself is a topic of discussion among young and old in various denominations.

Parents are taking a role. They come into the news when applauding some school approaches to the topic or criticizing others.

The unreported information is how far parents - indeed, all adults in contact with young people - are exercising the responsibility of expelling false fears and encouraging rational perspectives.

Sometimes, as a friend of ours just discovered, it is a matter of explaining to an eight-year-old that what he had heard at school did not mean an imminent danger to his family. If this seems an early age to be worried about the bomb, remember it was 10-year-old Samantha Smith who wrote to Soviet leader Andropov about nuclear war. Research has shown that 40 percent of American children learn about nuclear weapons before age 12, and that many of them are much concerned about possible war.

The figure almost seems too low in light of the prominence of nuclear issues in the news media. In any case, children can hardly be forever insulated from the adult world, or from sometimes misguided school attempts to help them deal with it.

The parental role is crucial in placing the arms race or indeed any other subject in context with a family's highest moral and religious concepts. It is never too soon to foster the considerate, nonaggressive attitudes in individuals that can bolster peace among nations.

The same is true for older children, of course. But for them more and more schools are providing programs in specific peacemaking techniques - conflict resolution as an alternative to war. Parents can play a part by taking an interest in their children's work along these lines - and also in whether the programs are balanced or biased, neither minimizing nuclear destructiveness nor overaccentuating horrors even with the best of intentions.

One reason nuclear weapons are so much in the news is that nations, institutions, and individuals are trying so hard to control them. This is a positive point to be made to the young coming newly to a vast subject. They should be aware, for example, of the undespairing outlook held by one of the most persistent voices warning against the arms race, Nobel Peace Prize winner Alva Myrdal. She discusses this ''major intellectual and moral dilemma of our time'' in ''The Game of Disarmament.'' The book's last line on the challenge is: ''As it has been created solely by mankind, it lies within our power to solve it.''

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