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.)

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