Of war and words: talking to children about conflict

Helicopters have circled overhead as Josh Shuman bathed his children. Gunfire often startles the family at dinner and late at night. And recently, as Josh and his wife, Bat-Zion, were readying their boys for school, they heard a bomb explode two blocks away, between their home and the school.

Such is life in Jerusalem these days, says Mr. Shuman, an American who married an Israeli woman 11 years ago. For them, he says, encountering violence so close to home "makes for some interesting parenting challenges."

Americans aren't being awakened by the blast of bombs, but as an invasion of Iraq inches closer, dinner-table conversation in the US often turns to talk of war. All of a sudden, American parents are faced with calming their children's fears while hiding their own, maintaining a sense of normalcy amid a climate of uncertainty, and responding to questions and concerns in a manner that's understandable, age-appropriate, and reassuring.

A tall order, to say the least.

But as many parents begin to deal with the questions Israelis have long faced - "Why war?" "How long will it last?" and "Will we be OK?" - they are finding unexpected benefits.

Table-talk discussions between parents and children about Iraq and other world events aren't just calming children's fears. In many cases, parents discover that as they take time to listen intently to their children and teach some valuable life lessons, they grow closer as a family.

Even parents who are struggling to navigate their way through war talk can learn from the experience of people like the Shumans.

With each event, the Shumans reassure their children, ages 9, 7, and 16 months, that they will keep them safe and protected. They speak honestly and openly about conflict in their country. And after any terrorist attack, they shut off the TV.

What's age appropriate?

Whether to broach the topic of war at all depends on several factors: the child's age and temperament; what he or she might have heard at school, on the bus, or on the sports field; and how imminent a war seems to be.

Naturally, if the child brings up the topic, then the parent will want to listen and help sort out any confusion. But keep it simple, experts urge.

Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston, author of the forthcoming book "Teaching Young Children in Violent Times" and the mother of a 20-year-old son, recommends that if a child under 6 years old doesn't bring up the topic, a parent shouldn't either.

And, she says, go easy on the details until your child is a young teen. Too much detail could be both scary and too complex for a younger child.

It's also key, adds Ms. Levin, to keep one's own political views out of any discussion of war with children - unless they are in their preteen or teen years and are asking for your opinion.

"Let the kids' point of view be your guide," she says, admitting this can be difficult for parents with strong beliefs. Children just want to have their immediate questions answered.

Anastasia Galanopoulos, a mother of two boys, in Sudbury, Mass., steers clear of talk about war if she can help it.

She has found that it's most effective to address current events by making comparisons to conflict resolution in their daily lives - situations her 8-year-old or 4-year-old might have faced in school or on the playground.

Ms. Galanopoulos also keeps an eye out for children's books that can help teach conflict resolution skills. These explain complex situations in simple ways that children readily understand. And they show the range of choices a character has in a given situation. That helps young readers navigate their daily lives and better understand what's happening in world conflicts.

To watch or not

Most importantly, Ms. Galanopoulos says, she - like many other parents - insists that the TV news stay off when the children are around.

Television news images can be traumatic for kids,says C.T. O'Donnell, president of KidsPeace, a national organization that helps children in crisis.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, for instance, some children who saw replays of the planes striking the World Trade Towers thought each replay was live. Instead of two planes flying through the buildings, they thought there were 20 or more, depending how many replays they saw on TV.

Mr. O'Donnell considers it OK for children to watch TV news at age 7 or 8 - provided that parents watch with their children and are ready to answer their questions.

For older children, watching the news with their parents can provoke lively discussions. But O'Donnell recommends that parents limit exposure to violent images and war talk.

Address all concerns

Each of the O'Donnells' three children, ages 11, 13, and 25, have expressed different concerns about the current situation.

"The youngest wonders if we can overcome threats from terrorists," he says. "My daughter, the 13-year-old, is concerned about her personal safety, and my older son is interested in global resource strategies and long-term outcomes of a war."

O'Donnell stresses that it's important to address each concern and question individually, even when all are gathered at the same table.

And as in his family's case, when the children are all over 10, there's nothing wrong with hearing one another's questions and learning from them, he adds.

During one of their family talks, says O'Donnell, his 13-year-old raised the topic of drafting civilians for military service, which led to a whole new set of questions and a fascinating discussion about the draft in other countries.

Parents may be surprised to realize during this type of discussion that even a thoughtful, articulate college student might be feeling anxious, he says.

This illustrates that it's crucial for parents to reassure their children - of all ages - during times of conflict and war.

Some families bring God into the discussion. In the Rev. Suzan ("Sujay") Cook's home, prayer is central to family life. She, her husband, and their two sons, ages 7 and 10, pray together each day. If the parents forget their time of family prayer, the boys will remind them.

Praying together has become even more important in the past two years, says the senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship in New York. That's especially true after Sept. 11, which Dr. Cook calls "the door that opened the conversation" to talk of conflict, vulnerability, and life's purpose.

The role of prayer

Her church held a prayer service that day, to which many people showed up still covered with soot after fleeing from ground zero. It was important for people in the congregation to share their stories with one another, she says, and for the children to sort out their feelings in Sunday School.

Now more than ever, Cook says, it's important to cultivate a child's faith and to plant seeds to help children pray. "If they can have their own conversation with God, they will feel a sense of peace."

Cook also recommends that parents be on the alert for subtle cues that children are feeling nervous.

Be ready for questions when you least expect them, she advises. While riding in the car, her children will often raise a sensitive topic. It may not be a convenient time, but it's vital to address what's on their minds regardless of how rushed or distracted you might feel, she says.

Sometimes it's helpful for children to hear the perspective of another adult, adds Cook.

For example, when her children and their friends were recently playing on the tennis courts of an armory in Harlem, National Guardsmen asked them to leave.

But first, Cook asked the guardsmen if they would take a moment to explain their mission to the kids. After talking about their work, the soldiers asked the boys, who were hanging on their every word, if they would pray for them.

"It was such a moving moment," Cook says. "And [the children] learned things about the military that they couldn't learn from us."

When Daddy is a soldier

If a child is from a military family, especially one where Mom or Dad is deployed, parents will obviously have to tackle the topic of war earlier than they might otherwise.

To give them a little assistance, Kirk and Sharron Hilbrecht have written a series of children's books, including "My Daddy is a Soldier," and "My Mommy is a Guardsman" (New Canaan Publishing Co., $6.95 each).

The books are designed to help kids ages 3 to 10 understand more about their military parents' job and feel proud of them for it, and to provide ideas for staying connected while their parent is away.

Mr. Hilbrecht served eight years as an Army officer, including during the Gulf War. He is now employed as a civilian in the Air National Guard in Louisville, Ky.

But he just might have to take a page from his own book soon. "Are you going to war, Daddy?" his children, ages 7, 4, and 1-1/2, ask him these days. To which Hilbrecht responds that he doesn't know yet, but if so, he's "trained, fit, and ready."

He also reassures them that "Mommy will take good care of you while I'm away."

Although comforting to children, are those answers realistic?

There's sometimes a fine line between reassurance and false optimism, say the experts. "If you gloss over a situation or try to make it sound better than it is, kids will be turned off," says Levin, the Boston college professor.

Focus on the good, too

Still, she suggests emphasizing all the good things people are doing to make the world a safer place, such as stepped-up security in airports and on airplanes. "Children need to know the news isn't all bleak, and that many people are trying to avoid war."

As both a mother and a fourth-grade teacher, Cheryl Hirshman has plenty of opportunities to talk with kids about their questions and concerns. "Children are really interested in knowing the truth," she says. "Sometimes they'll ask me questions in the classroom that they are uncomfortable asking at home."

A weekly family meeting at her home has lately become more of a forum to discuss international affairs than to share stories of the week.

Her children are 15 and 12, so for them, simple reassurance isn't enough. They crave information, and they want to know how they can make a difference.

When they express strong views about a political issue, Ms. Hirshman and her husband encourage them to write or call a politician to let their opinions be known.

"Teaching children to participate in their world helps to break the fear," says Hirshman. "They will feel less defenseless and gain a sense of empowerment."

But getting involved can go beyond the political realm, says Levin, who urges parents to initiate community-service projects with their kids.

"Have a yard sale and send the money to children in Afghanistan," she suggests. "Such a simple activity can be profoundly important."

But whether children are jotting notes to senators or selling their old toys for children in war-torn countries, what's most important is that they know parents are there for them no matter what, says Levin.

If they ask, "Will a bomb fall on our house?" don't laugh, brush off the question, or give them a pat answer, she stresses.

Instead, follow the lead of parents Josh and Bat-Zion Shuman and let the question be the beginning of an open and honest dialogue that will deepen with the years.

Resources about children and war
Books

"Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World" by Naomi Drew, 2002, Citadel Press.

"Helping Young Children Understand Peace, War, and the Nuclear Threat" by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin, 1985, The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11" edited by Robin F. Goodman, Andrea Henderson Fahnestock, and Debbie Almontaster, 2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

"What Happened to the World?" by Jim Greenman, 2001, Bright Horizons, Watertown, Mass.

"The Impact of War on Children: a Review of Progress Since the 1996 United Nations Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" by Gra├ža Machel, 2001, Palgrave.

"Children in War: A Guide to the Provision of Services" by Everett M. Ressler, J.M. Tortorici, and A. Marcelino, 1993, UNICEF Program Publications.

"Helping Children Cope with the Stresses of War: A Manual for Parents and Teachers" by Mona Macksoud, 1993, UNICEF.

Video

"Children in War" (documentary, 2000), can be ordered from the Children in War website: www.childreninwar.com/thefilm.html

Websites

About Our Kids.Org: www.aboutourkids.org

Educators for Social Responsibility: www.esrmetro.org

Save The Children: www.savethechildren.org

United Nations Children's Fund: www.unicef.org

War Child: www.warchild.org

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