What do we tell them?

Polly Neate on the dilemma for parents of young children
presented by the Iraq war.

We know that the battles we played out in childhood, between
cowboys and Indians, even allies and Germans, were not that simple
in real life. Our children play the same game, and we know
eventually they will learn. Now there’s been a real life war
– and a morally complex one. Can we still indulge those childish

“Joseph came in and said ‘kill the Iraqis!’ and I
just lost it with him. I feel I’m going to be sick when I
hear that,” says the mother of a five-year-old boy. Another mother
says: “I feel alienated from Ryan. I just can’t actually
believe the mindset that he has.”

Both boys have been playing games about the war at school, yet
the girls in the same class say they haven’t even talked
about it. Amy who is four, was taken on the peace march with both
her parents and her grandmother. She found it “boring and tiring”.
She knows her family hates the war and tried to stop it, but it
happened anyway. Once the tedium of the march was over, and she was
reassured that there wouldn’t be any bombs falling near her
home, she lost interest.

But several of the boys in the class are fascinated.
“We’re trying not to have the TV on because he will just sit
there endlessly fixated, not accepting it as reality at all,” says
Ryan’s mother. “To children of that age watching this war
there are goodies and baddies, and he keeps saying ‘We are
the goodies, aren’t we?’ We don’t believe we are.
But whatever we say we can’t shake that deeply held

Joseph’s mother says: “I don’t want him to see it at
all on the TV. But he’s desperate to see the tanks.”

In Ryan’s and Joseph’s homes, toy guns have never
been bought. Still, Ryan seems to know all about the SAS. “We have
no idea where he got the information from. We are getting these
images of the great allied forces pounding away with their high
tech weapons and that appeals to a lot of boys’ mentalities,”
says Ryan’s mother.

These children’s excitement about the war is clearly not
based on a realistic understanding of what is actually going on.
For them it is a game in which the two sides are emblematic. “He
doesn’t want to accept the fact that the English might not be
goodies. And he’s very concerned about winning. He keeps
saying “Are we winning?” We have told him ‘people always get
hurt but there are no winners’. But of course that is not
entirely true because politically there may be winners.”

How far can a parent go to show that the war is not a game?
Joseph’s mother says: “I’ve tried to talk about it in
terms of fights and bullies, and say that people get hurt for no
reason. But I worry that I’m not telling him the right thing.
I’m most worried about frightening him.”

Striking a balance between helping children understand and care
about what is happening to other people, and frightening them or
making them feel guilty, is difficult for all parents.

This war is many miles away, but for children caught up in wars
themselves the battlefield is also their playground and life must
go on. In the 1940s and 1950s, London children used to play on bomb
sites where people had lost everything, even their lives. And they
still played the same old fighting games – goodies and baddies,
winners and losers. It’s part of the British memory of war:
children carrying on with childhood, despite the horror.

We treasure young children’s innocence and know that all
too soon it will be gone. But when they chant for victory against
Iraq – as though war were a football match – it’s not
charming. It shocks us. In our confusion every answer is a
compromise. “I would rather tell him the truth than pretend
everything’s OK,” says Joseph’s mother. “But it’s
a very hard one.”

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