Explaining War To Children Can Be Surprisingly Difficult

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My children are just beginning to ask about current events that they hear my husband and me talking about. This is how my oldest ended up building Osama bin Laden’s compound out of Legos (surprisingly inaccurate, unfortunately). A few months ago she saw a soldier riding our Metro car home from the Pentagon stop and asked me why he was wearing what he was wearing (fatigues). I did my best to answer.

And this Memorial Day, where we are just a few minutes away from Arlington National Cemetery, the questions keep coming. Yesterday we were driving around amid the sea of “Rolling Thunder” that visits Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day Weekend. Rolling Thunder is a huge demonstration to bring awareness to prisoners of war and those still missing in action. It’s been going on since 1987 and each year it seems to get bigger and bigger. About 250,000 folks on motorcycles ride through the area this weekend.

My oldest asked me about all this and I did my best to explain the Vietnam War and war in general. It’s surprisingly difficult. In the New York Times, Stephanie Himel-Nelson explains how she handled things when her boys were younger and her husband was deployed as a Seabee. But things have gotten a bit more difficult as her boys have gotten older and asked tougher questions:

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 O.K. 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.

My own views on the current conflicts we’re involved in vary. But for my kids, I try to remember that their knowledge is limited and that they don’t need to know everything right now. I focus on what’s good about the military and how much we owe to those who sacrifice. We can discuss Libya at a later date.