My 7-year-old loves to build with Mega Blocks and recently got a warplane kit of them, which he spent several days putting together. One morning, his 4-year-old brother saw the box and asked me why there was fire coming out of the front of the plane, which is supposed to be a machine gun. On the box, the photo makes it look very realistic.
I sat down on the floor next to my son and took a look at the box. “Well, this is a warplane,” I began, “and that’s a gun,” I answered, trying to keep it short and sweet. “But what’s it for?” he pressed. “Well, in war, planes are used… See, the gun on the front of a plane is for shooting…War is what happens when two countries don’t agree on something and can’t work it out by talking. So they use guns…” I paused, yet again, unsure how to continue. “I don’t know how to explain war to you,” I said to him, and I kept looking at the box. He came over and hugged me and said, “Here, Mom, I’ll give you some love so you can think better.”
I had always hoped that I’d be at least somewhat prepared to answer my kids’ tough questions when they came up. I’m not a queasy, uncomfortable sort who shies away from difficult topics; I think the truth is best, because it can open up avenues for discussion and further questions that lead to a real understanding for kids. This enables them to go out into the world and make well-informed choices. Maybe my problem was that I was trying to justify the reasons for war in my own mind. Or perhaps I wanted to give him some logical rationale for why guns are used on people at all. Knowing Ben, if I’d continued with the short answers, he would have persisted with questions like, “Why would somebody shoot at a person?” “Does it hurt?” “Why would somebody want to hurt someone that bad?” “What’s an ‘enemy’?” “Is he a bad guy?” My answers would have been shorter, but no easier.
Of course it’s not feasible to try to hold a political discussion with a 4-year-old, but at the same time, I don’t want to lie to my kids or tell them things that go against my own beliefs (what parent does?). So many other questions raced through my head: Should I downplay the danger of guns so he thinks they’re harmless, or just toys? No, that will just bring more problems later on. Should I put him off and change the subject? No, because I want him to be able to ask me things without discomfort, and know that I care about his understanding them. So instead, I kept trying to come up with a simplified explanation of war, and all I could boil it down to was people killing other people because they disagreed. How do you explain that to a preschooler? I am among many adults who don’t understand it.
When I was growing up, I declared myself to be of a certain political party — the same one to which my parents and one of my favorite television characters belonged. But I had neither any idea what the affiliation meant nor what beliefs the party held. No one ever explained it to me — it was just presented as “the way it is,” so I accepted it as such. By the time I was old enough to vote, I had developed the self-confidence to have real opinions, and enough knowledge about the world to make my own decisions. Only then did my party affiliation change. Someone once said that we have merely opinions and beliefs until they are put to the test; only then do they become courage and convictions. This is what happened to me when I was called upon to vote as a young woman.
As I examined my feelings about war that morning with my son, I realized that this was a test: one of those ‘hands-on’ moments with our kids that force us to acknowledge our own comfort levels with our selves and who we are. The fact that the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq is now over 3,000 makes me angry, and my conviction is that war is wrong. But I don’t want to just state that categorically to my son; this made me realize I have to walk a fine line as I try to explain the world to him.
Every day as a parent gives us opportunities to grow. I’m not insecure about my opinions and beliefs anymore. But while I’d like my children to agree with me, it is not something I can force. My beliefs are not “just the way it is.” What this incident made me see is that I want to be able to present my outlook to my children in a way that will help them understand the world, without slanting or influencing them. Only in this way will they be able to develop beliefs and opinions of their own. Only then will they have the tools they’ll need for when their own tests come along, those that will let them build their own courage and convictions.