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What Do We Say to the Kids? Talking about Violence and WarAnne Meyer Byler
March 23, 2003
From September 11, 2001 on, many parents have wrestled with how to talk to their children about the horror and uncertainty that came so close to home. What to say about the people who did this horrible thing? What about the U.S.'s all-out military response, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq? How do we share our beliefs about following Jesus, the nonviolent reconciler, in times like these? Some of us may even wonder what we do believe, when it comes down to specifics.
Your parenting philosophy. One place to start on these questions is to think about your parenting approach so far. Some people strive to shield their children from as much as possible, for as long as possible, hoping that this will help them choose what is familiar and approved.
On the other hand, there is no way in the world to prevent our children from eventually encountering frustration, conflict, hard decisions, and pain. We can, however, shield them to some degree, be present as they encounter troubling aspects of the world, and give them appropriate handles for their developmental stage.
How you and your family deal with the attacks on the U.S., the U.S. attacks elsewhere, and what follows, will depend on your parenting philosophy and the values you have already modeled in your response to other world events. As Christians, we take our cues from the Bible, our knowledge of the character of God, and our community of faith. From these sources I have distilled the following suggestions for walking with our children through difficult times such as these.
Communicating with children. Children soak up like sponges what they see and hear around them. We can surround them with the best modeling and explanations of our concern for the world, service, and peacemaking. Do you know people who did alternative service during previous wars or who served with MCC among people suffering the effects of war? Refer to this as you speak of your family's core values in the face of world events. If you don't have the grounding you wish you had in the good news of Jesus' reconciling love for all people, keep reading this article for some places to start.
Borrow the new video, "The Good War and Those Refused to Fight It" from Mennonite Central Committee ((888) 563-4676) and view it as a family with your older children. The story of Conscientious Objectors during WWII is very well told. (Said to be for grades 9 to adult, but I think middle schoolers would gain something from viewing this with a parent.)
When my husband was arrested for protesting bombing exercises in Puerto Rico, we shared stories of Paul, Silas, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mennonites through history who did what was right and ended in jail. Later, our 4-year-old made valentine hearts for the people dropping the bombs, wanting to do "something nice for them so they would stop." Recently, the Navy agreed to remove all military training exercises from the island in May 2003, a small thing to celebrate even amidst war elsewhere. Share stories and photos with your children about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams in various places where there are conflicts in our world: Iraq, as well as Colombia and the West Bank. (http://www.prairienet.org/cpt/). MCC also has recent updates on Iraq and other locations. (www.mcc.org).
Another project with younger children (and their Sunday school classes) is to take play dough ahead of time, shape it like a bomb or grenade, and share (briefly and age appropriately) about the kind of damage these weapons can do. Then talk about all the useful things we wish we could do with weapons that hurt people. Invite the children to "make plows out of swords" by shape animals, buildings, plants, shovels, etc. from the play dough weapons. Talk about how many useful things we need and how we can answer God's call to create rather than destroy. If your children get so mad at the war that they see the soldiers as "bad guys" and want to kill them (this happens!), then talk about how those soldiers fighting are trying to protect their country the best they know how. But they have mothers and fathers and may have children, too, so it doesn't help when anybody gets hurt… (When anybody gets hurt it hurts everybody a little bit.)
What follows are some organizations with websites where you can find information and action ideas to let children know what is going on in Iraq and elsewhere, and think together about how you might help heal some of the hurts of war:
Give children sources of comfort. We can remind pre-schoolers that what they have seen or heard discussed are "problems that big people started and need to solve." If the child knows that people of all ages have been hurt, you can acknowledge that a lot of people did get hurt and it's very sad whenever that happens. But God holds hurting and sad people. And we can be God's hands and feet by thinking of ways to comfort those who got hurt. Discuss specific actions you as a family can take. (Making or contributing to relief, health, and school kits through MCC is a good practical idea. For children specifically: "How does my relief kit get to Iraq?" has photos and a description of the journey.)
One way to symbolize our safeness within God's love is a simple candle-lighting ritual at mealtimes. We have done this to keep in mind specific people or larger, troubling world events. When my brother was in Hebron with Christian Peacemaker Teams for several weeks, we lit candles at supper. As you light the candle, you could say, "Jesus is the light of the world. We want to spread the light--not add to the darkness." Read 1 John 1:5-7 and John 1:5. You could follow this with a discussion of specific ways your family can spread the light, or specific acts that seem to be adding to the darkness. Over a supper discussion about our world's way of answering violence with more violence, my daughter repeated a saying we had shared with her, originally about the death penalty: "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?!"
Go over biblical passages. You could also read together scriptures that reflect God's presence with us at all times, even when there is suffering (and we know there will be suffering). Some scriptures to get you started are: Ps. 23, Ps. 27:1, Ps. 46:1, Ps. 139:1-10, Hosea 11:3-4, Matt. 28:20, 1 Pet. 3:8-12.
Have a contest to see how many scriptures your family members can name that talk about the importance of being peacemakers. (Then use a concordance to find more or Dorothy Jean Weaver's book, Bread for the Enemy.. What does Jesus say about how to deal with our enemies? What did Jesus do with people who were his enemies? Use the popular question, What Would Jesus Do? to wonder about what he would do if he were here today. (See below for resources.)
Limit exposure to the mass media. We all know how television ran nonstop images of the attacks and interviewed people about every possible aspect. Viewing too much of the media makes it harder to resist those worldly values. Paul instructs his hearers in Romans 12:2 not to conform to the world, but to be transformed in order to discern God's will--what is good, acceptable, and perfect. We have chosen not to watch television news.
If you do watch television news and coverage, keep up a running commentary on what you're seeing and hearing (and not seeing and hearing). Read news releases from MCC and CPT so that you can get other news sources about areas of conflict. Subscribe to their email lists for quicker access (CPT or from mennolink select menno.org.cpt.news and menno.org.mcc.news). .
Look to media that are not reporting a mainstream U.S. perspective: Reuters and BBC are two sources. Another online source to check into is Accuracy In Media (AIM) a "non-profit, grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage." They "encourage members of the media to report the news fairly and objectively--without resorting to bias or partisanship." (http://www.aim.org/)
Personalize the victims. After the plane crashes on 9/11/01, NPR radio shared names of some of the 5,000 people who had died, giving us details about their everyday lives. As the U.S. seeks revenge, we need to remember that we also are creating victims whose families are mourning. What are their names?
Look for such stories about one of the early victims of our bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Abdul Saboor. Abdul volunteered on Oct. 7 to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan to deliver the salaries of workers for Afghan Technical Consultants. They were working under the U.N. to clear landmines that are left from the last war there (when the U.S. had armed the Taliban to fight the Russians). Two hours after arriving in Kabul a U.S. bomb killed him, and the money he was carrying--one month's salary for 30 employees--was lost.
On March 21, 2003, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq met with doctors at the Al Monsur Paediatric Hospital. The doctors said it was very hard to send children home and delay their treatment in order to prepare the hospital for possible civilian casualties. When Lisa asked them, "What are your dreams?", they replied, "No war. No sanctions. But really, it is your country that needs the dreams."
The next week, the Iraqi Peace Team reported that some of our their team members today, with Dr. April Hurley, encountered a family that was just rushing into a hospital after a bomb hit the picnic lunch they were having in front of their home....
Check out the book, Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide, and read it with your elementary or middle school children. Find Lebanon on a map as well as Israel/Palestine and Afghanistan. The book tells about a 10-year-old boy in Beirut, who had lived with war all his life--as Afghani and Iraqi children have--and lives in his basement with his family. We get to know Sami and his family and his growing desire to work for peace.
Broaden children's perspectives on world events. What makes people do such horrible things? In one sense, what we see as an attack, others may see as rightful revenge, in the same way that a child who has felt picked on over time may do something nasty to a sibling, seemingly out of the blue. This does not make the nasty act okay, but it does make it more understandable.
Economic sanctions and bombing of Iraq for the last 10 years are responsible for 500,000 deaths--5,000 children a month. That, plus U.S. support of Israel's policies in the occupied West Bank, has fueled a great deal of anger in the eastern Arab world. When people get desperately angry and hopeless, they sometimes do violent things that hurt innocent people. Are these acts then justified? Absolutely not. Murdering innocent people is wrong, no matter who does it. But these evil acts don't happen in a vacuum. We cannot simply dismiss Osama bin Laden. We need to realize, and help our children see, that the unfairness of what happened to us has also happened in other places of the world, and sometimes our government is to blame. After all, our extended family is God's family that knows no national boundaries and our loyalties are to God's call on our lives. By mid-December 2001, the innocent Afghani victims killed in the war surpassed the number of people killed in the Sept. 11 attack. Cluster bombs dropped will assure countless more victims in the years to come. (The United States has failed to sign the international agreement banning use of land mines.)
Let your older children know that the United Sstates armed the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980's (when they were fighting Russia) and also sent weapons to Iraq in the 1980's when they were fighting Iran. Many U.S. companies, plus Ministries for defense, energy, trade, and agriculture, as well as the foremost U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories at Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia, are designated as suppliers for the Iraqi arms programs for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as for rockets. This may be more than you want to know, but this info has not been adequately covered in the U.S. media. (www.bowlingforcolumbine.com/library/wonderful/iraq.php and http://news.independent.co.uk/world/politics/story.jsp?=362566 )
Questions without answers. God does not ask us to have answers to all questions about evil, pacifism, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden. And fortunately God did not put us in charge of keeping the peace in a world full of people who have rejected God's sovereignty. It is hard enough to do those things that God has told us to do, without taking on additional tasks! We are told: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away…" (Deut. 6:5-7) May we model radical faithfulness to the God who calls us to be peacemakers in our world.