War Is a Difficult Lesson for Children

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), April 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

War Is a Difficult Lesson for Children


Byline: Carl Bybee For The Register-Guard

What do we tell our children about war? About this war? What do we tell our children about the images and words of war that have now surrounded them for three weeks and have haunted them since Sept. 11, 2001?

As a media educator and media analyst, I am left in confusion and doubt about how I can answer those questions when experts argue over the meaning of this war and its coverage.

But the children's questions do not go away, and in some ways are less likely to be satisfied by the simplistic answers offered by much television and newspaper coverage. The war has been reduced to a focus on the taking of Baghdad. Taking Baghdad, the headlines and front-line coverage appear to tell us, means we have won the war and our troops, those who have not died, can come home.

There is, of course, another problem with talking to children about war. As the National Association of School Psychologists carefully reminds us, this is not simply an opportunity for a civics lesson. This is a psychologically unsettling time that demands that parents and educators help children understand that they are safe. Even adolescents, who are also seeking to understand the war in more adult terms, need this reassurance.

As the NASP also reminds us, some children's sense of safety is extremely vulnerable, given they may have family or friends in the military service or living in the Middle East.

So how do we talk to children about this war and the images of this war? First, we need to understand its traumatizing potential, provide them with truthful reassurances and make a point of talking to them about the war in age-appropriate ways. Turn off the television - it is neither reassuring nor educational, for children or for ourselves. The images, the logos, the urgent updates are hyper-charged, generating fear and anxiety.

But what of older children, who need not only to be reassured but to begin to understand in more complex ways what the war and the images of war mean? Here we come to yet another critical challenge. The presentation and coverage of the war has been deeply personalized, but with an odd twist.

The single person of Saddam Hussein has been used to stand for the entire nation of Iraq - a nation of 24 million people. The war even began with a "decapitation" strike, based on this metaphor: This metaphor hides, of course, the widespread destruction of the torrent of bombs and missiles launched against alleged military sites, often in areas densely populated by civilians. …

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