Tell your kids about war
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
"I'm hoping for peace," said the Kahalu'u mother of four.
Her second-oldest, Ronson, 18, is a strapping Saint Louis High senior who favors an American invasion of Iraq and can discuss the fine points of the issue with the ease of a CNN commentator. He'll begin studies at the U.S. Military Academy in June.
Honeychurch has two younger children, Landon, 10, and Kanani, 15, who aren't that concerned about war in the abstract. But they are worried about their big brother.
"We hear him talking. We know how he feels," said the elementary-school worker. "I tell them, he's pretty much protected for the next four years while he's in college."
Honeychurch isn't the only one struggling with how to talk to her kids about war and not just because Ronson is studying government in high school, spends weekends with his National Guard pals and also attends talk-story sessions with U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawai'i), memorizing what the new congressman has to say about Iraq and North Korea.
Knowing just what to say and when can be challenging for parents and educators, but experts know listening and acknowledging are key to helping children cope with their fears and concerns.
It's important to wait for an opening, said Dr. Bruce Chorpita, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and clinical director of the child and adolescent mental health division of the state Department of Health.
After the 9/11 attacks, some parents may have gone too far, bombarding children with information far beyond what they truly wanted to know, he said. Just as if your 6-year-old wants to know where babies come from, you don't pull out the "Kama Sutra," you don't pull out Newsweek to do Iraq human shield show-and-tell with your toddler.
"You shouldn't grab your 4-year-old and say, 'I want to tell you about war,' " Chorpita said. "Tailor your response to their level."
If younger children have picked up on something in the news and are curious, he suggests responding with real answers that are broad and reassuring and age-appropriate.
"You've got to react, but don't overreact," he said.
"Be a role model," said Jim Rogers, a family life educator at Coastal Carolina University. "You are their rock. Don't show your panic. Don't show your anxiety. Don't show your unhealthy concern or fear. Show your interest ... with explanations."
The key is knowing your children, Chorpita said. Your daughter might be questioning you at length about whether bombs are being dropped outside. You figure you've answered her questions, but she just keeps 'em coming. Perhaps what she really wants to know is if it's safe to go to the park for a her birthday party this weekend.
Above all, for the wee ones, keep it simple, which Chorpita knows isn't easy: "War's difficult for an adult to understand."
Ralph Moore, senior pastor at Hope Chapel Kane'ohe, often talks about how he found himself glued to the TV and becoming a news junkie after 9/11. However, his grandchildren were out of town when Moore found himself staying up until the tiny hours, getting bleary-eyed reading news magazines and watching news shows.
Now that the grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, are back in town, they might just be around when war breaks out. If so, the TV goes off, Moore said: "It's important that we protect our kids, establish boundaries on what we let them watch." He recalls listening with his parents to Korean War news when he was 5.
"I remember being frightened by it. We find that little kids are very bright, absorbing more than adults give them credit for," Moore said. "... I'm going to turn TV off and watch news some other time, but explain why I turned it off."
"Don't have the TV on round the clock," said Chorpita, father of a 2-year-old daughter, whose wife is now expecting their second child. "If you're watching 'Headline News,' take a half an hour of controlled viewing. If you're not watching TV, turn it off. That's a good rule in any house under any conditions. When there's a war going on, it's an especially bad time to have news streaming round the clock, and very hard to get any relief. Go outside, play, take walks, ride a bike."
Chorpita suggests parents pick up a newspaper or check the Internet for the details they seek: "It doesn't have to be streaming into the house in full color."
And keep to a routine, he adds.
Psychologists urge parents, teachers and child-care workers to look out for what internist and author David Marks calls SOS, or signs of stress.
"Parents can forget the fact that a lot of physical complaints can have emotional causes," said Marks, author of "Raising Stable Kids in an Unstable World."
Physical signs of stress include headaches, unexplained fatigue, pains, aches and changes in sleep patterns, he said.
Chorpita adds avoidance to that list say, your son suddenly doesn't want to go to soccer practice, even though he loves soccer.
"And watch out for kids who have experienced other loses," he said. "They're particularly vulnerable and more likely to be concerned."
Above all, Chorpita adds, let kids be kids, and allow them their security objects. "If a child has a way of thinking about war, even if it's not accurate, let 'em do it," he advises.
If they've rationalized that "we're OK, because the war's far away," a parent shouldn't respond, "Well, a bomb could go off in the harbor."
"They've settled on a way to feel OK," he said. "We'll let them have that. Even if it's not 100 percent true, don't challenge it, don't take that away."
Younger keiki may not understand the seriousness of the situation and they don't need to, he said. Parents can act as filters.
Teachers are also on the receiving end of children's worries, said Dennis Kajikawa, an education specialist for the state whose area is counseling. He was gathering information on resources about anxiety, for a teacher, when reached for an interview Tuesday.
"When the need comes up, we try to pool resources," he said.
There are no state policies or regulations for how to answer kids' questions about the war," Kajikawa said. "We're tasked to educate students."
If students become so preoccupied with events of the day that teachers can't give their lessons, it's acceptable to address student questions in a logical, cognitive way, then go on with the subject at hand, he said.
If parents have concerns about what is or isn't being said at school, it's OK to call the school counselor or principal to check in, Kajikawa said. For older children, this is a time to share your family's values, Chorpita said, to teach them about tolerance of others' religious and cultural beliefs, to talk about the harms that come from prejudices. And if they have a family member or friend who has been deployed, it's time to discuss standing up for a country's ideals.
Peace advocate Jonathan Dang, another 18-year-old Saint Louis senior, could go point-by-counterpoint for hours with Ronson Honeychurch if classmates Shane Chambers, Joshua Fan and Brian Rafael would let them argue that long. But at home, Jonathan is reminded war has its costs. His father, who's in the Air National Guard, keeps a packed suitcase at the ready in case of deployment.
"I know he's concerned, he's asked about the draft," said James Dang, 53, who comes from a career military family. "... (He's probably more concerned) just because the situation is pending.
"I've always had a bag packed, but it means something, now."
USA Today and the Knight-Ridder News Service contributed to this report.
On the Web: Tips for talking to the young about the war, from the National Association of School Psychologists