How to talk to children about the war?

by Renate Dünki

As a small child I myself have experienced the war, remembering pictures of nights in the cellar, of my then 23-year-old widowed mother fleeing from the city with two children and fleeing from the bombs into a forester’s lodge where we found shelter, of years in which every bit of food was a treasure. This young woman managed, within the framework of the extended family that stuck together, to give us children a feeling of security at that time, despite everything. How did that work?
  Later, I asked myself that question again and again, also in view of the never-ending wars in the Middle East or in other regions of the world and the children who came to our schools from such war zones. We need to deal with this topic.
  An important new publication now addresses the question of how adults can enter into an appropriate dialogue with children about the difficult issue of war and catastrophic events. The book by Rüdiger Maas and Eliane Perret addresses this urgent concern in a way that is easy to understand. It provides a guide for parents and educators, recording well-founded findings from science and school practice in a lively, empathetic and easy-to-read manner. It does not give tips, but encourages reflection and penetration of this issue.
  In the first chapter, parents are addressed who have lived in our countries mainly in secure circumstances until now and are now confronted with a war on their doorstep. Many parents today are no longer clearly aware of their importance as role models. It is precisely the authors’ concise, descriptive explanations of the research results of learning and developmental psychology that can bring this back to parents. Objectivity in the face of disturbing images and news, so that children find their footing and do not lose courage; having one’s own informed, well-reasoned point of view; insisting on reputable sources: these are attitudes that parents are encouraged to adopt in the interest of their children.
  The second chapter looks at the role of the media in such crises: Young people and adults usually use different sources. This makes it all the more important to remain in calm conversation, to take time out from the media once in a while and not to make sweeping judgements. Otherwise, there is a danger of “talking past” the children and young people. It is valuable here to refer back to the preface, in which the principles of war propaganda are presented to us readers. They were already researched 100 years ago, and their methods can also be seen in the modern media. In this way, parents and educators are given an instrument for the independent assessment of disaster reports, from which a more objective approach to such events can result.
  After clarifying these prerequisites, the authors address the requirements of the different age groups of children: What level of talking does a preschool child need, a lower or middle school child, an adolescent from the age of 13? Of course, these age specifications are not absolute, because each child has its own individuality, which must be sensitively addressed. These explanations in particular seem to me to be central. Using examples, they paint a picture of how children’s questions in the family can be answered in a way that is neither over- nor under-demanding. They paint a picture of how this can succeed by parents taking their time, not answering hastily, but grasping the meaning and scope of their children’s questions.
  Example: A pre-school child has seen crying women and a bombed house on television. She asks the mother what happened there. After asking what the child imagines, the mother is able to explain the situation in simple terms, but still convey confidence that there will be a solution:
  “There has been a big dispute between the country where these women and children live and another country. Now the soldiers of the two countries are fighting each other. They are destroying many things; you saw that in the picture. That’s why these women are sad, because they don’t know what to do. But now many people in many countries have to think about how to end this dispute. Because all people want to be able to live in peace.” (p. 29)
  It is always a matter of accurately grasping the child’s concern according to her age and not burdening her unnecessarily.
  The concluding chapter expands the scope of the topic to include schools and other non-family care services. It gives insight into projects and themes that have proven successful in school practice but can also be transferred to other settings. These valuable examples are again divided into three age groups as a guideline, I would recommend their reading as a stimulus for own projects to every school house, every day care centre.
  For example, the authors describe young people’s engagement with international humanitarian law. It is the result of the efforts of nations to live together peacefully in the world and to establish rules to protect the people concerned even in the event of war. This topic has been carefully elaborated in a Red Cross teaching aid for schools. It is thought-provoking with many examples. And it gives the young people hope that the future could become more peaceful despite all the threatening dangers and that they can make a contribution to this. After this discussion, for example, it was clear to the young people “that warfare must be stopped as quickly as possible by a ceasefire, followed by urgent humanitarian aid and an international conference to try to find a compromise that will contribute to lasting peace in the region.” (p. 71)
  A bibliography provides titles that are suitable for a more in depth discussion of one of the topics dealt with.
  This new publication, especially in times of great uncertainty, questionable decisions and a threatening arms race, is a guide with which many parents, but also educators, will find access to these challenging tasks.
  “May guidebooks like this one someday no longer be necessary.”  •

The qualified psychologist and well-known generation researcher Rüdiger Maas studied in Germany and Japan. He researched and worked abroad for a long time. His book “Generation lebensunfähig” (Generation unlivable) became a bestseller.
  Dr Eliane Perret has a broad background of experience as a teacher, curative teacher and psychologist. She studied psychology and special education at the University of Zurich and worked for many years as a teacher and head teacher at a special school for children with learning and behavioural problems. She is the author of articles on psychological topics, parenting and educational issues as well as violence and bullying prevention.

Maas, Rüdiger; Perret, Eliane. Wie ich mit Kindern über Krieg und andere Katastrophen spreche.
Ein Leitfaden für Eltern, Lehrpersonen und Pädagogen.
(How to talk to children about war and other disasters. A guide for parents, teachers and educators).
Kiedrich 2022

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