Talking with Kids about War

The drafty but beloved home of my Michigan childhood featured a rather dim and damp basement that was accessed through a trap door from our kitchen. That cement-floored space was divided into several separate rooms. During the winter, my mother hung washed clothing on lines to dry in the largest of those areas. One of the small rooms was fashioned almost entirely with rough, wooden shelving that held clear Ball and Mason jars filled with fruits and vegetables my mother had canned.

Sometimes we played downstairs while she hung clothes on the line. Being a somewhat apprehensive, quiet, and rather OCD child, one would think I could have been most concerned with falling down the steps (my brother did, once!), about what was hiding in the dark corners, or with that large spider eyeing us from its web, overhead. No, this child of the Fifties and Sixties was silently pondering whether there was enough food for our family on the shelves in that little room, in case we needed to hide out in our basement if “the Russians” attacked!

Did I share those fears with my parents about what I’d overheard on the evening news? I don’t think so. Did they know how scared I was when a B52 flew over from the nearby airbase, wondering if it was “one of ours” or “one of theirs?” I don’t believe they did, or surely they would have said something. I worried a great deal about “war,” but had no idea how to bring up the topic. In the political climate of our world today, there’s no escaping the realities of war or potential for further escalation toward war. Only very young children are easy to shield from the news on television or the internet. There’s no way to ensure that our kids won’t learn about troubling situations in the world.

Some children ask questions and give you plenty of openings to discuss difficult topics. Others, like the childhood version of me, won’t (or can’t find the words to) ask. In those cases, you’ll need to create your own openings, which can be a challenge. That’s where children’s books can help! Along with many other people right now, I’m feeling very helpless about world events, many which have been precipitated right in our “own back yard,” here in the U.S. What can I do? Maybe I can offer some suggestions of children’s books to help parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caring adults approach the difficult subject of war and the equally important topic of conflict resolution with the kids who are important to them!

Why? by Nikolai Popov – Winner: 2017 NCSS/CBC, National Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

A frog finds a beautiful flower and picks it for himself. When a mouse sees him with it, his jealousy overcomes him, and he swipes it. Frog’s friends come to his aid and chase the mouse away. But before the frogs can celebrate, Mouse’s friends return for a counter-attack. Before long the conflict has devolved into a full-scale frog-mouse war. By the end of it, all either side can ask is: why? This seemingly simple book tackles an important subject and will be an invaluable way to talk to young children about conflict and warfare.

Playing War written by Kathy Beckwith and illustrated by Lea Lyon. Learn the details about this book for children in grades 2-5 at Patricia Tilton’s blog, Children’s Books Heal.

Top 20 Picture Books for Anzac Day, with Children’s Books Daily

8 Books About War for Kids from Scholastic

Conflict Resolution with Young Children at Social Justice Books

Literature for Children and Young Adults Examining Issues of Violence and Conflict Resolution with Center for Civic Education

21 Multicultural Children’s Books About Peace from Colours of Us

I hope you can find something here that fits your particular situations and your children!                     ~Becky

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77 thoughts on “Talking with Kids about War

  1. I’m so sorry you were worried about that when you were little, and that you worry even now. Kids see so much violence today, I wonder if they’re ever afraid of it, except at home. Video games, movies, comic books, pretty much everything. Certainly TV. But it’s great to have books to read to those who do have fears. And I agree, it’s a topic to bring up because some children might not know how.

    I don’t think we can do anything about what’s going on because the only way to stop it is to get rid of the people who start it. Citizens don’t start war, the six people in charge do. That’s the only place to start…with governments. They are the war mongers for greed. They had to tell george bush jr. to not smile when he was talking about dead soldiers.

    No one is in the streets any longer. The police are militarized and all the armed forces do what they’re told to do. They will kill us. Think Kent State, the Chicago Convention.

    The only reason we have war is because a tiny group of MEN decide to fight. I think we should let them. Fight each OTHER in the coliseum in Italy, until only one of them is left and then we can put that guy in jail for life.

    Worrying won’t stop anything. Actions sometimes can but I don’t even know if that will work anymore. We were always in the streets fighting back but no one cares what the people think any longer. Government doesn’t answer to the people, it takes what it wants and it doesn’t care how many bodies it takes to get it.

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  2. Great post, Becky. Books can often communicate something difficult to children that may be hard for us to find the words. I remember when we lost one of our class pets, and the school psychologist loaned me a book to read to my class. I wish I could remember the name of it, but it was many years ago. The point is that book helped the class and me get through what for some of them was their first experience with death.

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  3. I felt very much as you did as a child, unable to bring up difficult subjects, so the idea of being helped through books feels comforting. Though I don’t have children myself I could only recommend these to others. This feels like a job for parents and guardians. ‘Why?’ sounds brilliantly simple and effective. I immediately thought ‘don’t pick the flower’ but someone else might say that it will be picked because it’s there. It’s funny that we have to give these behaviours to animals to make sense of them. So much to ponder! Thank you for the evocations of your childhood and the thoughtful recommendations.

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  4. I don’t recall any particular childhood fears, but I think it’s very likely that there were things on my mind that my family wouldn’t have guessed I was thinking about.

    Encouraging children to read is an excellent idea. Good stories help us see there are different pounts of view to any situation.

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  5. The United States has been in small wars for most of its history–against Native Americans, regional conflicts, and for the past 40 years in various conflicts in southwest Asia. I’m not diminishing World War I when I say we’ve been in a major war approximately every 80 years–American Revolution, Civil War, and World War II. If this 80-year cycle continues to prove true, we are due for one in the 2020s. (I hope I’m wrong). These books may prove to be more prophetic than we know today. Good discussion.

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  6. When I was young I fully expected a Third World War – my grandparents had the first, Mum and Dad the second and truth to tell I was quite looking forward to the adventure as Mum’s tales of air raid shelters when she was a young teenager sounded quite fun. Dad managed to come of age in time to fly with Bomber Command at the end of the war, but as he told us nothing about it I was not put off. I had no idea who the enemy might be in my imagined war. When I was older Mum told me the darker stories.

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  7. This is a really excellent post.

    Since we lived 2 miles from Offutt AFB and Strategic Air Command headquarters in the 1960’s (my dad was a wargamer) all of this was absurdly futile. We were required to build a bomb shelter in our basement but since we WERE the target it was silly. My dad line a room we’d built down there with books, bought four canisters of C-Rations at the Army Surplus store, including canned water and said, “It’ll be fun until we’re vaporized.” the B-52s cleaned their jets every night just down the road. I was never afraid of it until I was 10 and saw “On the Beach” on TV. My dad consoled me with this very interesting rationale — we were the target. We would not have to wait for the fallout. We’d die instantly. As he was suffering from MS, that might have seemed like a perverse boon to him. We listened to Tom Lehrer and sang, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go” and I stopped fearing and learned to love the bomb. I don’t know if my dad’s stragedy was good or bad, but I wasn’t afraid any more. My nightmares turned to dreams of driving a schoolbus to pick up all my friends who DIDN’T have the good luck to live on the target so we could all see the flash together and be vaporized.

    Writing this, it seems a little sick, but maybe that was my dad’s Irish black humor. ❤

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Martha, thanks so much for your personal insights! We were about 20 miles from Wurtsmith AFB near Oscoda, MI, so I suppose we were a target, too! Your dad probably understood you well enough to know if you could handle his reasoning. I’m not sure that would have worked for me:) I do believe it’s important to not let fears run our lives, and I’m still working on that!

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      1. Fear definitely has it’s up side (protects us) and it’s down side, that of constraining life. My dad was well tuned into me and knew that I’d get it and believe him. Even at the time I think I knew his reasoning was a little “different.”

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  8. I remember being terrified as a child every time I heard an airplane fly overhead. It wasn’t until years later in a US history class that I realized that the start of that fear coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis. As hard as my parents tried to shield the news from my brother and me, it must have worked its way into my subconscious. How incredibly sad that we need children’s books to explain war. There is no such thing as an innocent childhood anymore, and it’s a shame.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Your post here includes a beautiful and thoughtful reflection that leads right into the children’s books, which will help a lot of kids and parents out there. With a teen who will turn 18 in the summer, the word “draft” hangs ominously in the air–war is truly difficult to talk about–and face.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. The beginning of your post took me back. Our basement had separate areas, divided by invisible walls. One was for laundry. One was for canned goods. One very large space was a play area. My brother also fell down the basement stairs.

    The Cold War. We used to have drills at school in case of an attack. Everyone gathered in the halls, crouched and covered our heads with our hands. Now that’s protection! What were they thinking? I don’t think I felt fear, because my parents made me feel safe. A friend of mine bought a house years ago that has a bomb shelter in the back yard. It is no longer safe to enter, but when we could, it was stocked with old canned goods and medical supplies.

    War never seems to find an end in our world. It is much like the book you shared about the frog and the mouse. Maybe a few adults should read the book for a clearer understanding of how conflict begins and escalates. Why, indeed?!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Robin,
      Thanks so much for sharing your memories of those times! I’m glad you felt safe, and I suppose my parents thought I felt that way, too, since I didn’t say otherwise. You’re right, that war is never-ending, and we all could learn a lot from books like “Why?”

      Liked by 2 people

  11. How wonderful that people have written books on such a difficult subject. I grew up on military bases all over the world so we had an inkling but no one ever talked about it with us. NO ONE. I talked about it a lot with my children but never saw any books on the subject. If I’d had grandchildren, they would have been very helpful. I’m glad to see this.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Those are wonderful recommendations, Becky! And yes, I remember as a child being worried about the Russians attacking as well. And there have been so many threats and conflicts since then, that I’m afraid children have always been worried about something or someone; the object of their fears changes, but the emotion is the same. That’s why it’s so important to reassure them and give them tools to cope. Because no one should live their life in fear!

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  13. I know my mother spent the war being absolutely terrified that her father, who was away fighting, would die. Though he returned, that fear means even to this day she won’t watch any war film as it brings back the echo of that terror… And I also recall feeling absolutely desperate that my life would end in a nuclear holocaust before I’d had a chance to grow up. Though I can’t recall wanting to discuss my fears with any adult – and I was a very outgoing chatty girl – because I knew full well that M.A.D. was a real thing and I didn’t want to hear the adults around me lying to me to try to make me feel better… So it’s quite a tricky subject, isn’t it?

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  14. A very thoughtful post, Becky. I grew up in Detroit where we had duck and cover exercises in grade school as well as drills where we went to the school basement. The local fire station used to conduct air raid warning system checks. All in all living under the threat of an atomic bomb attack for years. There was even an antiaircraft Nike site built temporarily in the neighborhood. All very concerning to a kid.

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  15. Such a poignant and important post. I’m addicted to the news coverage, even though I’m Canadian, I live close to a border and usually what happens to the US we Canadians get the fallout. I’ve often wondered with that state of the US what do parents tell their worried children. These books seem like a good start to talking.

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  16. Good recommendations for books, Becky… Reading the comments made me realise how many children grew up touched by the thought of war although my parents talked about the effect war had on them.. My mum was evacuated I never felt fear just interest in the tales. I do wonder if war is a bigger threat now all that is needed is to press a button but thats just annialation really. Books are good if they teach how, why and how to stop wars starting which seems to be the way forward.. Good recommendations, Becky

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  17. We grew up around the same time. I had a teenaged mother who said this about war when I was 7 or 8 “We will be bombed. Detroit makes all the tanks. They’ll take us out first.” She was young and afraid herself and not so good at hiding it. My kids grew up in a relatively peaceful time until 9/11, but I’d like to think I’d search out a book that would help,them understand.

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  18. OMG – I remember all of us schoolchildren herded down to the basement of the school for practice air raid drills, taught to huddle underneath furniture. It was terrifying – for me, anyway. These books look great, particularly “Why?” Thanks …

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  19. I think is great what you are trying to convey, although kids are kids. So I think, might be wrong (often are) that they might see something about war on t.v or internet but not really comprehend what it truly is. As a mater of fact most adults can´t even comprehend what really is. I was in the Spanish Legion, went to two “beautiful” countries as an infantry man. If we thought through our training that we knew we were up against it was a rude wakening, but I do have to say except a couple soldier,who we immediately threw them out as a group since they froze when bullets started flying, the training did kick in and you really go into some kind of automatic mentality, while you shoot, move, communicate, comes natural after all that training. It´s later when you are “safe” that you think about it alone, and you realize the gravity. Then comes the dark jokes and the rest of the BS between us to keep morale up. So kids…. let alone true war, except those little ones we found in Irak and Afghanistan and even those I think that for them it was a game. They were constantly smiling and asking me and my guys for food which we didn’t have we where not there as NGO´s. Even those kids seem happy, they were happy actually, always fascinated me until today. With all the garbage they live in and with family members dying left and right they smile and were very happy to see us, touch our guns (we didn’t let them) but our helmets, our cool glasses, body armor and the rest. We were like a freaking carnival passing by.
    Maybe the best way is to go to youtube where you can find waaaaaaay too many war videos and put it to the kid, might scare the bejesus out of him and put him into therapy maybe for a week or so but in a good sense since he won’t want any of that as he grows, maybe become a pacifist. I don’t know. I actually think it´s better not to let them see it nor know about it, in Spain there is a saying “eyes that don’t see heart that doesn’t feel”, and for a kid that’s good, let the kid be kid, play with their JI joes or whatever kids do now, play their little video games now a days and let them live happy, shield them from the reality of life, it will come the time like to us all when they start growing and start to comprehend and formulate their own ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your interesting insights into this challenging topic! In general, I agree with letting kids be kids. They do hear and see things, though, and it’s good to know that the adults in their lives have the tools to broach this difficult reality of life, especially with the children who seem to be worried about it.

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      1. The kids I do know that really heartfelt were worried were the ones of my guys, and few of the guy since we were18 19 the average age was except the sergeants and above that were in there 20 at the time, two of them had families and that had to be very but very hard for their kids. But the kids mother did shield them, so they did ask for dad but mommy said he was working and he’ll be back in a couple of month, actually was a 6 month rotation which in both tours because of the logistical problems rotating one unit to the other, then “teaching” them what we learned, e.t.c. ended up to 7-8 months in those countries. So you never really knew when you were going back to Spain, neither did the kids, but as I talked now to my former sergeants and their kids that they are not little kiddies now, they have very little recollection about they’re feelings, specifically, they missed their father that’s about it, but not really a sense of the time-space he wasn’t around them. Plus if we were not deployed we were constantly training so they got used to see dad when they saw him. Tough that life if you have a family, for the rest of us nutcases we loved it. Pure male adrenaline. But the mothers of those kids always shut their eyes and kept them engaged in activities, and actually for the kids after some years now that I have talked with some, the two mothers filled the role of dad and mother so well they didn’t even miss to the point of crying every day but miss them. What a pair of women, now being older I do think about how hard it had to be at that age then when they were 25-27 to be able to endure so much responsibility and being very afraid of what their husband was doing. We Spanish Legion were not officially in 2005 in Afghanistan, the socialist government didn’t want to tell that to the public so since we were not there officially and but we were in a combat role phone communications were prohibited, no communications for 7 months+ with families or friends. Most of us didn’t care much though, we got use to it, we had each other so the American phrase brothers in arms it is actually quite true. But for those who did have family of their own now I know it was extremely hard yet they never showed any weakness. And the mothers back home taking care of the kids….incredible.

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