Talking to Kids ABout War

By: John Philip Jackman

A few days ago, my 8 year old daughter asked my wife “What state is Iraq?” My wife explained that Iraq is not a state, but another country. This led to a number of other questions: “Why are they fighting?” “Why is Saddam Hussein bad?” And finally, in a very round-about way, she came to the real question: “Are we safe?”

Unless you live in a sealed vacuum, your children know there’s a war on. The war is everywhere. Just as with the news coverage of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the coverage is wall-to-wall. Local news stations aren’t covering local news; regular programming is preempted with speculation and commentary. The visuals, the bombs, the strident music, are not lost on them. They absorb these things, and wonder about them, and formulate explanations – and questions.

The news channels are pumping wall-to-wall coverage into your home because it will increase their ratings. Things that make us tense and fearful boost ratings, and thus boost profits. They will not stop; the likelihood is that they will do more, with little regard or respect for the impact that the coverage might have on children. So it is up to parents to take control of the TV and protect their children from excessive exposure, and it is up to parents to answer the questions and calm the fears.

I’ll never forget hearing about the child of a man who worked in the World Trade Center when it was hit by a jumbo jet. She would only watch The Food Network so that she would not have to watch her father die again and again and again. And again.

How we react to news of war or terrorism will strongly influence how our children are affected. If we react with fear, obsessively watching every minute, every replay, then our children will be affected more deeply and will be more anxious and fearful. I was saddened after 9/11 to see many well-educated parents reacting this way. People in my town were stocking up, looking suspiciously at every Muslim, and speculating as to whether we might be next. That fact that Al Quaida would only hit Lewisville, NC by sheer accident and miscalculation never occurred to them; and I could see the anxiety level in their children rise to disturbing levels.

Children need to be reassured that they are safe.

They need age-appropriate explanations of what is going on. But above all they depend on us as parents to protect them from the unnecessary and irrational fear that TV coverage can create. Even for families who have a loved one in battle, who for understandable reasons find themselves dragged to the TV every moment, the statistical chances are very good that their loved one will return. 98% of servicemen returned from World War II.

Here are ten tips for talking to children about war or terrorism:

1. Talk to children about the war and the terrorists. Many parents fear that talking about violent acts will increase their children’s fear, but in fact the reverse is the case. When children keep scared feelings bottled up, their fears may be far worse than reality. You can’t reassure them if you don’t talk about it.

2. Talk about hate, anger, and bullies. Why do people do terrible things? Talk about tolerance and non-violent solutions to smaller problems. The terrorists are far away, but there’s a bully in every schoolyard.

3. Reassure them they are safe. The war is far away, and Osama Bin Laden has never heard of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania or Grapevine, Texas. Even if you live in New York City or Washington, D.C. you can honestly reassure you children that they are safe.

4. Find out what their fears are. Don’t assume you know what your children are thinking. Children often personalize fears, and may be afraid their school will be bombed or that any airplane might fly into a building.

5. Consider the age. You will talk differently to a four-year-old than a ten-year-old.

6. Limit television, radio, and newspaper exposure. Children simply don’t need to hear about the war all the time. I don’t think adults should be exposed to this constant barrage! Make sure that your child’s exposure to graphic coverage is very limited.

7. Tell your child what you think. Do you support the war? Are you opposed to the war? Use this as an opportunity to share your values in an age-appropriate way.

8. Avoid generalizations and racist statements! Casual comments about “those Arabs” or “those Muslims,” even in jest, will be noted by your child. The current conflict is a perfect opportunity to talk about how there are good and bad people of every race and religion. Keep in mind the song from South Pacific:

You have to be taught


Before it's too late.


Before you are six or seven or eight


to hate all the people your relatives hate.


You have to be carefully taught.

If we teach our children by example to that it’s OK to hate all Muslims or all Iraquis, how are we better than the Taliban or Al-Quaida?

9. Distinguish between patriotism and political opinion. The true American tradition is freedom of political expression. Feel free to tell children that you disagree with some people, but emphasize their right to have their own opinion.

10. If you have a relative in the battle, or a family friend deployed in Iraq, the situation is much more difficult. Everyone, adults and children, will be anxious and troubled. You won’t be able to help it. Marshall your own fears with spiritual support from your religion, from relatives, from friends. Focus on the fact that your loved one is far more likely to return than to be killed or injured. Be extra careful not to have the TV on all the time, no matter how compelling it might seem. Reassure your children that Uncle Bob will be fine. Statistically, this is probably true -- and it does not help children to imagine the worst. Take action together – send an email through www.emailourmilitary.com or through the appropriate service branch, make a poster, tie a yellow ribbon, plan the loved one’s return party.

Children today are subjected to influences that cause them to be unnecessarily fearful and anxious. A major source of this is television. TV coverage of war, terrorism, and violent crime are things we need to protect our children from if they are to have a chance to be children. Kids don’t need to shoulder adult burdens.

The Rev. John Jackman, an ordained minister, is Executive Director of Comenius Foundation, an independent nonprofit that advocates for responsible television. Comenius Foundation sponsors a free web site, www.changingchannels.org, with more information about how you can limit the negative effects of television on your children.

Free reprint rights are granted for use of this article in web sites, e-zines, newspapers, magazines, and newsletters provided the above credit is included complete with the web site URL. Please notify us of your use of the article by emailing us at info@changingchannels.org.

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