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Talking to Your Child About War: “A Teachable Moment”

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Is a war against Iraq a just war? What the Bush administration describes as a war of liberation is widely seen as a war of occupation.

Does President Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? Where is the smoking gun? War with Iraq; what does it all mean? Confusing for adults? Try explaining it to your 5-year-old child.

For parents these are tricky times. Kids are going to ask, and amid the swirl of debate, charges and countercharges it’s hard enough to explain the facts of the case. It’s even harder to explain them without giving your child a case of wartime jitters.

When a child asks, “what does it mean,” parents must balance honesty with caution. Everything starts with the premise that kids‚ questions are legitimate and that you have to deal with them at the time. How we answer our children’s inevitable questions is perhaps just as important as what we say.

Children, especially younger children, look first to their parents and other important adults in their lives - teachers, grandparents, and caregivers - and gauge their reactions before deciding how scared they should be. If a child sees worry and fear in adults‚ faces and speech, they are likely to become worried and afraid.

Experts suggest that parents use the occasion to establish communications patterns early. If a kid feels comfortable asking their parents, seize what psychologists call “a teachable moment.”

The key to seizing that moment without planting the seeds of worry may lie in how much a parent tells. Experts note that although honesty is the best policy with kids, parents‚ truth-telling should be geared to the age and emotional maturity of their child.

It’s best to wait for the child to raise the question. Answer it without going beyond the facts. Consider not only the basic nature of the child “is he or she a worrier or an easy-going optimist?” but how has the child handled stressful situations in the recent past such as a divorce, death in the family, loss of a friend or pet? These kinds of events could have a cumulative effect.

Talking to teenagers about war may present a different kind of challenge. Their independent reasoning ability, combined with their low interest in such matters could hamper parents efforts to engage in a meaningful conversation on the subject. Be aware that most teachers are discussing world events in class.

Try an icebreaker like, “How was your school day,” as a teaching opportunity. Kids in groups are notorious for spreading distorted and frightening information. Be prepared to quell the rumor mill. What this all means is, war is not a black and white situation. The debate is serious, complex and for many adults and children, frightening stuff. That means when your child asks, you have to make the time.

Dr. Levister welcomes reader mail concerning their body but regrets that he is not able to answer individual letters. Your letters will be incorporated into the column as space permits. You may direct your letters to Dr. Levister in care of Black Voice News, P.O. Box 1581, Riverside, CA 92502.

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