Family Matters Blog: Explaining War to Our Children

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2011 — Guest blog­ger Stephanie Himel-Nel­son is a social media con­sul­tant and the com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for Blue Star Fam­i­lies .

By Stephanie Himel-Nel­son
July 25, 2011 

Explain­ing war to kids is always hard, but when you’re part of a mil­i­tary fam­i­ly, the task is even more dif­fi­cult because it’s so per­son­al. When my sons were lit­tle, their father was in the Navy Reserve as an intel­li­gence offi­cer with the Seabees, the Navy’s con­struc­tion divi­sion. The boys under­stood what the mil­i­tary was in a very hazy “It must involve a ship, Dad­dy going away, and a large yel­low bee” kind of way. But because their father was­n’t direct­ly in harm’s way, I was able to gloss over hard ques­tions about war and just con­cen­trate on the fun parts of hav­ing a dad in the mil­i­tary from a toddler’s per­spec­tive — serv­ing the coun­try and wear­ing real­ly cool hats. 

When my broth­er, a sol­dier in the Ohio Nation­al Guard, went off to Kuwait three years ago, that expla­na­tion no longer seemed suf­fi­cient. While Uncle Bryan was­n’t hunt­ing Tal­iban in Afghanistan, our fam­i­ly still wor­ried about him and his safe­ty. To keep the boys con­nect­ed to their uncle, we checked his unit’s Web page with pho­tos post­ed for fam­i­ly and friends, look­ing for that famil­iar face. On one night, my son asked to see a pho­to of an “Army truck” and I found him a few Humvee pho­tos. On the back of each vehi­cle was a large plac­ard with two stop signs and a mes­sage in Ara­bic and Eng­lish. It read “DANGER STAY BACK.” My 3‑year-old want­ed to know why they had signs on the trucks. I tried the stan­dard, “Well, cars and peo­ple could get hurt by that big Army truck if they get too close.” He was­n’t buy­ing it, point­ing out that trac­tors are big­ger. So I said, per­haps rash­ly, “Some­times bad peo­ple try to get too close to the trucks and blow them up.” 

I’ll nev­er for­get the look on his face. The idea that some­one might want to hurt his uncle was incom­pre­hen­si­ble to him. I believe it was the first moment he real­ized that bad things don’t just hap­pen in night­mares. The moment was a first for me, too, as I real­ized that my mil­i­tary fam­i­ly would walk a fine line between explain­ing what Dad­dy and Uncle Bryan do and let­ting my chil­dren be chil­dren for as long as possible. 

In our mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty, my chil­dren and their class­mates under­stand more than most kinder­gart­ners should about the mechan­ics of war. My sons, now 5 and 6 years old, can iden­ti­fy mil­i­tary air­craft fly­ing over­head, they can tell you what an RPG or an IED is, and they know that Seals aren’t just found lying on the rocks in the sun. But war isn’t just a cool game for the play­ground; it’s hor­ri­ble and dirty and fraught with shades of gray. That’s where it gets hard. 

When my boys were 2 and 3, they did­n’t ask a lot of fol­low-up ques­tions about war, death and dying. I could dis­tract them by reas­sur­ing them that every­one would be fine and safe. Dis­tract­ing them was always an easy fall­back: “Look, there’s a pret­ty but­ter­fly!” But it keeps get­ting hard­er. My hus­band is retired now, but last year some good friends of my boys wel­comed their dad home from a year­long deploy­ment to Iraq and the boys sud­den­ly became aware of all of their school­mates with par­ents in Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s when they start­ed talk­ing about the wars. The boys did­n’t ask me direct ques­tions, but I knew that I need­ed to answer them when they did. 

My hus­band and I tried to shel­ter the boys from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, until pret­ty recent­ly. I sim­ply did­n’t think that they could han­dle hear­ing about that sort of evil. I can’t even talk about 9/11 with­out cry­ing, so how could I explain why we’re fight­ing a war in Afghanistan to my lit­tle guys? After all, a dis­like of broc­coli or that kid who spits his milk at lunch does­n’t exact­ly pre­pare a boy for con­cepts like jihad, does it? But last year, while we were watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary about pres­i­den­tial pho­tog­ra­phers, those famil­iar scenes from the twin tow­ers flashed onto the screen. My kids watched in hor­ror and turned to me for an expla­na­tion. They did­n’t ask ques­tions, they just looked at me, expect­ing Mom­my to have the answers. I stopped the video, and I tried to explain about Osama bin Laden and the men who flew planes into the tow­ers on pur­pose. To hurt peo­ple. And how we went to war to make sure it did­n’t hap­pen again. I’m sure it did­n’t help that I cried through my entire expla­na­tion, but the kids seemed to think the whole thing was a lot less com­pli­cat­ed than I did. My youngest son, who was 4 at the time, was shak­en, but I thought he summed it up well by call­ing the ter­ror­ists “bad people.” 

It seems awful­ly sim­plis­tic to explain away two wars with “bad peo­ple,” but so far it’s worked for us. I don’t even know how to explain Iraq to my boys, so I’ve punt­ed on that one so far. Still, I try not to dodge my kids’ direct ques­tions. I know that sim­ply chang­ing the sub­ject will leave a lot of unan­swered ques­tions in their minds. So when my youngest spent three straight weeks ask­ing me if there were bad peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, or in our town, or in his school, or in the gro­cery store, I kept patient­ly explain­ing that there are bad peo­ple every­where but that most peo­ple are good. And, of course, that the “bad peo­ple” won’t hurt them. I know, how­ev­er, that the boys still wor­ry for their friends with deployed par­ents and they wor­ry about their uncle. 

You see, Uncle Bryan is going to Afghanistan soon, and the kids know that it will be dan­ger­ous. When I talked about it with my boys recent­ly, my 5‑year-old asked, “Will Uncle Bryan die?” I said no, but I felt uncom­fort­able telling them that noth­ing bad would hap­pen. I can’t make those guar­an­tees. Instead, I explained that, yes, many ser­vice mem­bers have died in Afghanistan, but that Uncle Bryan is well trained and very care­ful, and that this isn’t his first deploy­ment to a war zone. My youngest keeps ask­ing ques­tions about whether Uncle Bryan will be hurt or killed, but I know that he’s not real­ly look­ing for answers; he just wants more reas­sur­ance from me that his uncle will be OK. I don’t let the boys see my fears. 

I’m encour­ag­ing them to ask me, their dad and their uncle any ques­tions they have. I’ve urged them to ask Uncle Bryan all about his job fix­ing tanks and oth­er vehi­cles in the hope that the kids will focus more on my brother’s mis­sion than on the dan­ger. And we talk about how won­der­ful it is that so many Amer­i­cans, includ­ing their Grand­pa, Dad­dy and uncle, have vol­un­teered to serve our coun­try in the mil­i­tary. We talk about how some­times it can be scary, but also how serv­ing in our armed forces is some­thing to be proud of. 

Right now, war seems pret­ty black and white to my kids, but I know that it won’t last. It won’t be long before they ask ques­tions about Iraq, or civil­ians who are hurt or killed, or the chil­dren in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now, my 5‑year-old is con­vinced that “Uncle Bryan can dodge the bul­lets,” but I don’t know what I’ll say when he real­izes that not every­one dodges every bul­let and that some­times peo­ple we love die. For now, I just hug my boys tight­ly and hope for wis­dom and peace. 

(Note: This blog orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the New York Times blog: “At War: Notes From the Front Lines.” Used by per­mis­sion of the author.) 

For more fam­i­ly-relat­ed posts, vis­it Fam­i­ly Mat­ters bl og or check it out on Face­book and Twit­ter .

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →