Anyone who knows me knows of my affinity/love/infatuation of/for military history. It's what I do in my free time. My son began wanting to look through my collection of military history books about a year ago, when he was late 3. At the time he focused on the pictures. Lately he's been asking questions about what the pictures mean, what's going on in them. I have been struggling with what and how much to tell him about war. Between these books and his friends constantly talking about Star Wars, with good guys and bad guys, I've been working out how to talk about war. How much war is ok for an almost 5 year old? How do I talk about war in a way that does not scare him, but also does not make him like it? What are the key lessons I want him to come away with when thinking about history overall? I love that I get to think this through, and wanted to share with you how I'm finding a COMFY way to deal with a very uncomfortable subject for children and adults alike.
A little background may be useful here. My father and I were able to establish a connection through going to air shows, fleet week, and watching military related movies. This was one of the strongest bonds I had with my father, and something I remember fondly. I was fascinated with planes, tanks, ships with big guns; basically all of the machismo tools of warfare. I also had a lot of time after school at a public library waiting for my father to pick me up. I spent this time doing many different things, one of which was going through all of the books on tanks, ships, and planes, which led me to military history, coming to find it a fascinating subject. I was so fascinated by it, in fact, I dedicated much of my adult life to working in/around the military. The more I've learned of war, the more I've focused on working to end it. I went into international relations in order to end war and the human suffering war creates.
Joshua found a way to bond with me the same way I did with my father, through the interest of the parent. He came upon my collection of military history books. I keep these separate from our regular books, but I do not hide them. I want Joshua to ask questions, discover things, and learn what the world is really like, so I will not hide anything from him and always answer his questions truthfully. This started easy enough. He liked the airplanes. He liked the ships. He liked the pictures of the submarine crews making cakes to celebrate something. When he'd ask the name of a book, I admit, I changed the name to ease the process a bit. For example, instead of Bombers Over Japan a book became Airplanes Over Asia. Similar meaning, but I was not yet prepared to talk about what a bomber is, and why Japan (which he learned about in school) was getting bombed. I felt this was an acceptable level of conversation for a 4 year old.
During the past few weeks, though, his questions have been far more in-depth than they were before. We have been looking at a book about the naval war in the Atlantic. Lots of pictures of sinking ships, submarines, and torpedoes led to questions about what a torpedo is for, why the ships are sinking, and what happens to the people on the ships. Honest answers are hard to frame in a 4 year old level of conversation. We began by talking about how a hole is made in the ship when a torpedo hits it. He gets that. Then how water rushes into the hole, making the ship too heavy to float. I showed him in his bath how a bottle full of air floats, but one full of water sinks. So he gets that.
What's hardest is when he asks about the people on board the ship as it's sinking. Initially he would simply say "But the people are ok, they just dive" or something like that. I did not want to leave him with the impression that the people are ok when a ship sinks, so I told him that many people get hurt, and some die. This led to questions about why a torpedo would hit a ship. His reply to his own question is "The torpedo is being a space invader, and should stop it." I emphatically agree.
Having an ongoing discussion about war with a 4 year old is difficult, but can be done in a COMFY way if you take the time to understand what the child is asking for, and provide them with that information. I earnestly work to not provide too much detail, but just the information he needs for the question he asked. What is he trying to work out in his mind? How can I help him work that out without complicating things for him? How can I do this in an honest way so that I am telling the truth, offering him insight, without creating undue fear or confusion?
This process has taught me a couple of key rules, which have been reinforced by talking with other parents, his teacher, and others I trust.
-Always be honest. The worst thing I could do here is lie to him. I want him to trust me, talk with me, feel that he gets something out of coming to me. Honesty is the foundation for that trust.
-Talk to him at his level, without adding anything he's not seeking. There's so much I want to say about War, so much I want to teach him. There is a direction I want to guide him so that he's not the victim of war. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for those future conversations, but they may take place FAR in the future.
-Answer the question he asked. (This takes effort to listen to what he's asking to ensure my answer is responding to his question, and not the question I want to answer.).
-Be patient with questions. He will ask the same question many times in order to work through the answer so that he's satisfied. He may bring up this question in the middle of another activity because a spark connected somewhere for him. That's ok. Answer the question again, and again, and again. He's trying to figure out why a Destroyer purposefully rammed a submarine. That is not an easy concept for a child to comprehend. Honestly, I don't comprehend why we put so much energy and resources into building these things only to then try to destroy them, so how can he get it?
-Be patient to teach. It's not yet time to go into the details of human suffering caused by war, how war can be avoided, and what we can do individually to help prevent future wars. That may come. It may not, I have no idea. What is going on is that my son is trying to figure out why a torpedo would make a hole in a ship. That's a much easier question and lesson to work on with him at this age.
-Be prepared when you accidentally do offer too much information or take the lesson too far. No matter how much you stick to these suggested practices, at some point you'll offer too much information. It may cause confusion, sadness, or even crying. No permanent damage is done, but he will come away with a lot more questions he then needs to workout. My example of this, which I'm not yet sure was a success or fail, was when I offered to show him a movie of how a destroyer and submarine fire depth charges and torpedoes. He was expecting a less than 20 minute YouTube video, but we ended up watching The Enemy Below. Boy did that bring up questions! He's not a fan of movies, never wanting to watch them. This was the first full movie he's ever watched from beginning to end. Only in the end did he cry. Yet, since we watched the movie he's been even more interested in sinking ships and torpedoes, so it seems like it's helping him visualize what it looks like when a torpedo hits a ship or a depth charge explodes. He has a lot of questions to work through, and I'll be here to help him figure this stuff out.
-It may be best to stick to one story every night when asked for a "Ship sinking story with a torpedo" rather than making up new ones each time. He's working out what it means for a torpedo to sink a ship, so a consistent story that allows him to process one set of occurrences is far better than a new story each and every night which only causes confusion.
In the long-run I know military stuff will be interesting. I want to make it ok to be interested, but to instill a sense of respect for the violence it unleashes, the suffering caused, and the responsible role of a person in weilding such power. I want to encourage questions about why a torpedo would hit a ship. I want to encourage discussion of what happens to the people on the ship. I want to incite and inflame his inherent curiosity. I want to have a bond with him that allows him to come to me with hard questions of why things happen in the world, and how he can make his way through such a place.
So, to sum up, a COMFY way to talk to young children about war is to practice these things: Honesty, age appropriate details, question appropriate answers, patience for both the breadth and depth of the lesson being taught, patience with the number of times you'll answer a specific question, consistent stories, and expectations that sometimes you will give too much information. If you manage to stick to these best practices your kid may come out of the whole process with a richer understanding of human affairs than most people possess. If not, well, s/he won't be worse off than most people.
How do you talk to your children about difficult topics?
Did I miss any best practices?