What our children ask about (this) war, what we respond

Thanks to all the children and adults who shared their thoughts with me.

Although children in Switzerland are far removed from the combat zone, many know a war is raging in Europe. What are they asking? What are we, adults, answering? What can we do to help them?

Seven-year-old Victoria raises her hand at the dinner table. Although the adults have tried to be mindful, the anxiety in the room has been rising. ‘Bombing’, ‘civilians’, ‘refugees’, the words reach the child. “On peut changer de sujet? Can we change the subject?” she asks.

Far from the war zone, but concerned

Some children hear the news from their parents, and some learn about war at the playground. Occasionally, the teachers discuss the topic in class. Many children, like Victoria, overhear the adults’ anxious conversations, read their non-verbal expressions, pick up on the anxiety, and draw their own conclusions.

Are parents trying to protect them from the news? How?

“I’m not trying to protect,” says the mother of Jo (6). “The war is all over the news and radio anyways.” She sends me a video. In it, Jo points a plastic shotgun on empty rolls of toilet paper that he’s lined up on the floor. He shoots, ‘You’re down Putin,’ he calls, triumphant.

I approach a father building a pebble tower with his 6-year-old son by the Rhone river, an idyllic scene. “We don’t have a TV, the kids (6 and 4) don’t have an iPad or laptop or anything of the likes, we live in a bubble”, he says. “They go to school and day-care, I don’t think they’ve mentioned a word there either. I wonder if ours is the right strategy,” he says.

The diversity of responses from children reflects the diversity of parenting models. In this tik tok generation, the child may have access to sources of information and disinformation that parents don’t even know exist. Children are much more exposed to media than we ever were. Protecting the child’s access to information is harder than ever. Is one parenting model better than another?

Zurich-based psychologist Graciela Hoyos confirms, “If there ever is an age when one is prone to fight and engage in honest warfare, it’s in childhood. Children easily fight over possessions and territories motivated by jealousy and envy, greed and avarice. There are children who would rather destroy their toys than share them. The problem is when in adulthood many of these traits (selfishness, impulsiveness and lack of solidarity) and emotional needs remain and are exercised on a larger scale affecting millions of people.”

“The concept of war is not foreign to my son, I’ve told him about growing up during the war,” says the Lebanese-born mother of 8-year-old Caio. “We talk about this war and war in other places, he’s pretty aware of what’s going on.”

Giulian (6) heard about the war in school. He was anxious, his mother tells me. “He asked me if it was true that there was a war. I told him the truth. Then he asked if the war was going to come to us. I told him that there was little chance but that if it did, I would take him far away from here.”

Many parents complain about the generalizations they hear. “They come from school saying ‘the Russians are evil’ says Xavier, father of three young kids (11 and 6-year-old twins). “There’s no discretion, no subtle analysis. Nuance is hard to convey. We need to help kids understand the difference between the Russian people vs the choice made by their leaders to attack. The reductionism surrounding us is sickening. It comes to a point where we see statues of Russian artists being vandalized, people asking for Dostoyevsky streets to be renamed, etc. When adults lose equilibrium, what do we tell our kids? My wife and I avoid the topic at home, but the twins recently asked if Geneva was going to be bombed. They feel unsafe here, some of their friends watch the news at home and describe images to them saying it’s close to home.”

Felipe (7) and his friends founded both Russian and Ukrainian clubs in class. He first joined the Ukrainian side. But later changed his mind telling his teacher that he is now supporting Russia because everyone else is on the Ukrainian side, and he has a good friend who’s Russian. The international school he attends sent a message asking the parents to support Felipe at home by offering him the right amount of information that would soothe his interest and fear while at the same time not exposing him to non-age-appropriate media content. A complex balancing act that is.

“I never lie to my child,” says Sol’s mother. At 8 and a half, Sol, asks tough, clever questions, “Why do we help some refugees and not others?

Sol’s question is echoed by Vitalie, an elementary school teacher. Vitalie teaches in one of Geneva’s REP primary schools (réseau d’enseignement prioritaire), characterised by a significant number of underprivileged children. She shows me a 5-page manual sent by the Departement de l’Instruction Publique, the education department of Geneva to all teachers. It’s a step by step manual explaining how to receive and integrate Ukrainian children in school, it even has a basic vocabulary and an alphabet, and hyperlinks to further references. “This is all very well,” she says, “but why have I never received, in more than thirty years, any support when integrating Portuguese, Eritrean, Kosovar migrants arriving in our school? We have 60–70% foreign kids here!”

Moira (7) and Arthur (5) read Partir: Au delà des frontiers (Leaving beyond the borders) with their mother. The book helps them talk about war, displacement, and asylum. They also listen to Salut l’info, a podcast from Franceinfo. “I’ve told them that violence occurs when people stop listening to each other, stop talking to each other and stop looking for solutions together,” their mother says. She recommends relating the current war to something the child is familiar with, like fighting over a toy. A point also made by Vitalie, “to explain the Russian invasion, I referred to l’Escalade, les savoyards, les genevois…”

Moira feels sad for the children in Ukraine and wants to go help them. Her mother tells her they are helping through donations and by hosting one family. She asked what they would have done if they were in Ukraine. “Leave,” the mother responded. “Show me a picture of Putin,” Moira asks her mother, and then comments “his parents are probably not proud of him”.

Est-ce que la paix se fait toute seule ? ” Does peace make itself or who makes it? Neva (4) asks her mother, an expert in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. When she grows up she too will make peace and have plenty of babies, Neva reassures her mother.

What is the question most asked by young children? The why. Why are they fighting? Children understand war, but many fail to understand why adults resort to it, say the experts. It is the adult’s task to learn to share, cooperate, communicate and show solidarity with others.

“It does not make sense to fight,” Caio (8) says, the truth comes out of the child’s mouth, indeed.

***

What the experts advise:

Listen. Find out what they know. The best thing to do is to listen to the child. But do not lecture them. Let children’s concerns, in their own words, guide the direction and depth of the discussion.” Ask open questions, such as, “Have you heard about Ukraine?” Give them time to answer. Resist the temptation to talk.

Find out how they feel about it. Acknowledge their feelings. Be attentive to signals of concern. Small children might not be able to name their anxiety, thinking it’s the chocolate cake that provoked their stomach ache. If they do not seem affected, simply make sure they know that they can talk.

“If the parent is wondering how the child is coping, he/she should take the lead from the child.”

Be transparent and truthful, in an age-appropriate way. Don’t tell them everything is ok, because it isn’t. If you don’t talk openly they may imagine even more daunting scenarios. And don’t tell them more than they care to know.

Clarify doubts and misconceptions. Help them find adequate sources of information.

Channel their energy to helping. Help them help, donate toys, clothes, and show compassion.

Some sources for further reading (in French and in English)

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/mar/05/be-open-be-honest-and-listen-how-to-talk-to-children-about-ukraine

https://www.unicef.org/parenting/how-talk-your-children-about-conflict-and-war

https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/blogs/2022/how-to-talk-to-children-about-war

https://www.familyeducation.com/life/wars/talking-children-about-war-violence-world

https://www.rts.ch/decouverte/monde-et-societe/economie-et-politique/la-guerre-expliquee-aux-enfants/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0bqh6w6 From minute 39-48 Psychiatrist Dr Chetna Kang

https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/13865002 Advice if you’re upset with the news

Francesca Sanna, Gallimard 2016, Partir: Au delà des frontiers

Salut l’info, a podcast from Franceinfo and Astrapi (a magazine for 7-11 year olds)

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