by Joan M. Thomas
Even before TV became a primary source for news of the outside world, current events had a serious impact on school-age children. They heard about events on the radio, they saw large headlines and graphic photos in newspapers, and they absorbed the reactions of adults in their surroundings.
Retired journalist Janice Wendl recorded her childhood memories, and that of many others of her generation, in her self-published book title We Grew Up During World War II. She remembered how she and her younger brother watched military planes on maneuvers over the family farm in Iowa. “We became very frightened,” she wrote. The children thought the aircraft might be enemy planes.
While it may seem strange that children living in Midwestern America in the 1940s were terrified that aircraft overhead would bomb their family’s cornfield, one must remember the limited experience of a 7-year-old.
Those of us who recall only the aftermath of that war, not its course, had comparable fears. Mine were manifested by nightmares filled with images of swastika-wearing soldiers taking over our home. Those scary dreams originated from both war movies and newsreels seen at the local movie theater.
Since the war was over, adults didn’t talk about it much. They just referred to it vaguely, saying things like “I’ll never forget Pearl Harbor” in a forbidding tone. Until I studied world history in high school, I lived under the mistaken notion that Pearl Harbor was a notoriously shameful woman.
Same emotions, different wars
In some essential respects, children growing up now are no different from these children who grew up during or just after World War II. They are affected by things they understand in their limited experience, they are chiefly concerned with their own environment, and they are influenced by adults’ reactions.
Sanette Thomas, counselor at Hodgen Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, says that the children of her school are mostly concerned with threats to “their immediate environment.” She still remembers how the events of September 11 had a profound impact on the kids than did discussions of the war in Iraq.
They could relate to the firefighters and police officers seen in the news stories, knowing what they represented. Plus, they knew about airplanes, a great deal more than kids of yesteryear.
The difference between the days of my childhood and now is today’s all-invasive media and internet coverage of current events. Imagine how much more intensely modern youngsters must perceive the reality of war. The rapid-fire news reports of unfolding events in distant places can even make it difficult for a child to separate what’s real from opinion or pure fiction. It’s hard enough for adults to do that.
Honest but simple answers
The advice most frequently offered by childcare experts such as the American Psychological Association (APA) is to watch the news with your children and listen to their reactions. Answer their questions as honestly and simply as possible without overloading them with brutal realities that they are too young to confront. And, never belittle a child for asking what you might consider a silly question. What seems a pointless concern to us may be a real fear for an 8-year-old.
Another point often made is that during any time of stress, it’s important not to alter daily routines. There is reassurance that the world is not coming to an end when life goes on as usual.
The APA publishes a series of brochures called Resilience in a Time of War, geared for children of different age levels. Each brochure in the series details 10 helpful tips on counseling children on war. The publications emphasize that you as a parent should “take care of yourself (emotionally) so that you can take care of your children.”
In her book, Honey, We Lost the Kids - Re-thinking Childhood in the Multimedia Age, author Kathleen Mcdonnell says that sometimes giving a child guidance “requires that we simply be there, up close or off in the background.” That alone allows a youngster a feeling of security, knowing that you will protect them and answer any questions they may pose.
One positive sidelight to what’s happening overseas right now is that you can use it as an opportunity for your child to learn. Just where are Iraq and Afghanistan? Help the child find these countries on a map or globe. Plus, it’s a good time for the entire family to learn about cultures other than their own, eliminating the fear of people some call outsiders.
Then, by the time children reach high school or college, they won’t be hampered by ignorance of global affairs. Hopefully, they will already know that Pearl Harbor is a place, not a person.
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.