Children Raise Hard Questions About The War

ALICE STEINBACH

January 28, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

LESS THAN TWO WEEKS HAVE PASSED since war in th Persian Gulf broke out and already I am seeing the world in a different light.

Driving to work the other day I saw a plane flying above a water tower and immediately some irrational part of me turned the image into a fighter plane over the minaret of a Muslim mosque.

Awakened by the sirens of a fire engine the other night, I sat up in bed thinking of air raids in Israel or Iraq; of fires, of children and parents, wounded and weeping.

Attending a party last week in Washington, I found myself wondering if the Iranian hosts and their Iranian guests hated me for being an American.

The psychological fallout of war does such things to people. Most adults, however, are able to sort out the real from the imagined, the facts from the fears.

Children, on the other hand, are less able to do that. And it's important for parents to reassure the child that he is safe and his family is safe. It's also important for parents to talk about the facts of war: the who-started-it-and-why. Answering this kind of question may present more of a challenge because it requires parents to examine their own beliefs and values. Still, it is an answerable question.

The less answerable questions -- and I found this out the hard way -- have to do with the moral issues children raise about war.

"Why are we still fighting wars like we did in ancient times?" a friend's 9-year-old daughter asked me. Then she went on to wonder why adults haven't been able to "invent" a better way of settling their differences than fighting. "My parents tell me not to fight with my brother. That that's not the way to solve problems."

She was learning that when push comes to shove, adults don't always practice what they preach. And she was wondering about modern man's Neanderthal approach to problem-solving. To wit: Let's kick some butt.

Another child, an 8-year-old, wondered if it was "OK" to kill someone you hate. "I don't want to see anybody get killed. Even on their side."

And this question from a neighbor's grandchild raises, in my opinion, a number of moral issues pertaining to war: "How do you tell who's right and who's wrong in a war?" he asked. Then he wondered if "everybody in one country is always right and everybody is always wrong in the other country."

Many adults -- myself included -- are struggling to provide our own inner child with answers to these difficult questions. Adults, however, have a reservoir of core beliefs to call upon when a world crisis, such as war, hits. But children, as child psychiatrist Robert Coles has observed, are in the act of forming lifelong responses to what is right and what is wrong and inevitably need more direction in times of crisis.

In the early '80s, Dr. Coles spent years examining children's reactions to the threat of the nuclear bomb. He writes of their XTC response: "I was struck, yet again, by the implicitly moral nature of the opinions I was hearing as I talked with some of the children. . . . It reminds us that boys and girls are constantly at work noticing what is just, what is unjust."

The child who is struggling to form a moral base for his life is confused by the complex and often contradictory messages he receives from parents and the community. And parents are confused, too.

A theologian I know suggests that parents might want to use the war as an opportunity to begin a moral dialogue with their child. "It won't be easy and it won't be fast and parents will find that it will raise many questions that they may need to answer for themselves as well. But it will be a journey of spiritual growth for both parent and child."

Finding words simple enough for a child to understand is important, of course. Parents could take a cue from a man named Howard Moore whose directness cuts through any generation gap. Mr. Moore, now 102, was a conscientious objector in World War I and recently expressed his views on the morality of war to a reporter:

"I've always thought that a punch in the nose is no way to settle an argument. It depends entirely on how much power someone has. It doesn't determine the right and the wrong. Unless we have a moral basis for our society I don't think we can survive."

It doesn't get much simpler than that.

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