USA Today, April 21, 2003
Let children offer their own insights on war
By Bruce Kluger
As thousands of mothers and fathers across America begin welcoming their
children home from combat in the Middle East, those of us with sons and daughters
too young to fight continue to count our blessings at having been spared such
parental agony. Yet for many of us, the conflict in Iraq brought a different kind of
struggle into our living rooms—in my case, even before the first U.S. bombs began
dropping on Baghdad.
As the battle was gearing up a few weeks ago, my wife, two small daughters and I
participated in a big anti-war march in Manhattan. Joining the throng at 39th Street,
we walked slowly down Broadway amid a sea of chanting protesters waving colorful
"Somewhere in Texas a Small Town is Missing a Village Idiot," read one sign. "No
War for Oil," said many others. And then there were those banners that used the
kind of language I wished my children didn't have to see.
For their part, my kids took turns wearing a sign I'd made for them. Framed by
pictures of the American and Iraqi flags, the slogan read: "Children of Iraq: We
Want a Play Date."
Truth be told, I was pleased to have come up with what I thought to be the perfect
anti-war sentiment for children: It employed their language and sensibilities, yet
injected a kind of grown-up irony that the rest of the marchers (and the assembled
media) would appreciate.
Halfway through the protest march, however, Bridgette, my 7-year- old, brought me
up short—as always.
"I know what I wish my sign said," she casually commented to us. "I wish it said,
'President Bush: If You're So Interested in Sending Americans to Iraq, Why Don't
You Go Yourself?' "
For a moment, I was simply proud of Bridgey's display of pithy wit. Then I suddenly
realized where I'd gone wrong.
In my version of Bridgette's protest banner, she was a peacenik hoping to swap the
scourge of combat for something as sweet as an afternoon in a Baghdad
playground. In her own version, she was struggling—like many children and many
American adults—with issues of fairness. According to Bridgette's preferred
placard, she wasn't particularly anti-war; she simply didn't want to be forced to
participate in this one. And that's fair, right? After all, she doesn't have to play
kickball with the boys during free time at school if she doesn't want to. Even
children can make choices.
Separating our agendas from our kids' is a tough but important job. We need to
recognize and support their worldviews, however simplified, before we begin
imposing our own bite-sized ideologies that we believe will make them better people.
"Do more listening than talking," advises parenting columnist Lawrence Cohen on
the NickJr.com Web site. "Most children have secret fears that they won't reveal
unless they are sure someone is really listening." Only then, Lawrence says, will a
child be "likely to share her concerns and tell you if something is weighing heavily
on her mind."
If Bridgette's comment during the march didn't entirely convince me of this simple
truth, a story that I heard the very next day did. During school drop-off, Kim, the
mother of Bridgette's friend Kayla, told me that she'd had a wartime-parenting
epiphany of her own.
"We were riding in the car listening to the radio," Kim said. "The invasion hadn't
happened yet, and a report about the mounting forces came on."
"Are we going to war?" Kayla asked.
"Yes we are, honey," Kim said.
"I wish I could write the president," Kayla continued, "but a 7- year-old can't do that,
When Kim assured Kayla that, yes, even a second-grader enjoyed the privilege of
communicating with the commander in chief, Kayla was energized.
Once home, Kim recalls, "Kayla disappeared into her room. Forty- five minutes
later, she returned with a four-page letter to George W. Bush."
Kayla's thoughts included this flawless bit of 7-year-old logic: "I don't think we
should go to war, because if we attack Iraq when they weren't planning to attack us,
then that will just make them mad. Then they'll attack us back. So it will actually be
like we're attacking ourselves."
Since the 9/11 attacks, I have engaged in more than a few debates with fellow
parents about children and war. In many cases, I have been criticized for telling my
children too much about the world.
"Turn the television off," I'm scolded, "and hide the damn newspapers, already. Kids
have a hard enough time growing up without having to know what's going on in real
I couldn't disagree more. The world is a messy place, and our kids know it. But if we
watch them closely enough—if we let them air their own thoughts, form their own
arguments and paint their own signs—maybe one day they can gently guide us to a
time and place where things aren't quite so messy anymore.