Making Sense of War with a Child. By Keith White  

Last night (Monday 7th March 2022) the six-year-old boy sitting beside me during our evening meal at Mill Grove paused over the plate of spaghetti he was enjoying, to inform me that there had been a Tube Strike.  He then described how children and families were ducking and running in underground stations because of bombs and loud explosions.

As he had gleaned from television, there had indeed been an Underground Strike in London at the beginning of March, but the pictures he had seen of families reacting to the sounds of war, were from far away Ukraine.  Perfectly understandably he had elided two sets of images.  And that was it.  As the adults at the table pondered what he was saying he was already tucking into the food in front of him.

Sometimes as adults we discuss what we should say to children about war or distressing events shown on television, but we should not be in any doubt that many young ones will be trying to make sense of what is going on without such thoughtful input.

It reminded me of the time when I returned from a meeting in London on 9.11. 2001.  Our youngest daughter was sitting alone in front of the television screen looking strangely mesmerised.  When I saw repeated clips of what looked like model planes flying into two towers, I asked what film it was.  She replied that it wasn’t a film: it was real.  She then interpreted what was happening in New York to me.   As I began to take in what seemed frankly so bizarre as to seem incredible, I felt a pang of fatherly pain and guilt, that I had not been there for her, and with her, as she had been witnessing one of the appalling atrocities of human history.

After the meal yesterday evening, I was at a meeting of the local community association in what we call the Waverley Lounge of Mill Grove.   It suddenly struck me that it was in this very room in the autumn of 1956 where I had first met Hungarian refugees who had come to stay with us after fleeing from the Russian invasion of Hungary.  Memories of these people, where they sat, what they wore, what I felt, came flooding back as I sat, over 70 years later, wearing a Ukrainian flag on my fleece.  I knew that this childhood experience had left me emotionally wounded, but now I was reminded just how deep and raw the scars still were.

I recall how adults, notably my father, tried to explain to me why we could not respond to the cries of help from the freedom fighters in Budapest by taking up arms.  He told me that we had to pick our battles, and this one, against the USSR, was doomed to failure.  It sat very uneasily with all I had learned about World War II, and the speeches of Winston Churchill (who happened to be our MP at the time).  In short, I was not convinced, but realised with the sort of shock associated with being plunged into a cold bath, that I was living in a world where people made compromises, were sometimes economical with the truth, and where there were many shades of grey.  This was at a time when I saw things in terms of good and bad, drawing my inspiration from fairy stories, and children’s literature, notably Enid Blyton.

So as adults, how do we help children to make sense of war with sensitivity and integrity?  Instinctively I feel that the question has already betrayed itself.  Is it possible to make any coherent or genuine sense of war?  What does that sense look like, and how could it possibly be conveyed to a six-year-old?  In the process, time and place are likely to become confused or conflated, and there is a risk that any attempt at explanation might make the child’s immediate world, including for example, the local underground station, feel unsafe.

In the book, The Growth of Love, I invited readers to imagine a child’s world or kingdom.  Borrowing the idea of big and little people from Jonathan Swift, I described events in the life of a child using the language of nations and governments.  So mum and dad were king and queen of the kingdom, there were expeditions to supermarkets, and there were summit meetings with friends at school.  When things went wrong things turned very chilly.  Parents quarrelling was like civil war; divorce like the break-up of the kingdom; physical or sexual abuse like invasion.

Whether we are talking about actual big things like governments and wars, or more local, personal things such as weddings or divorce, they are all part of the same world to a child, and this world looms huge in her thinking.  As the poet Gibran realised, we may give children our love, but probably not our thoughts, for they dwell in their own world that we can never fully enter.

So what did I actually do, or say, yesterday evening?  Let me describe the sequence without any attempt to explain or defend it.  During the meal I chatted with the adults for a time as a way of indicating to them as well as to the little boy that what he had said was important.  It wasn’t something to be laughed out of court or ignored.  Later I pointed out the Ukrainian flag I was wearing, and why I was doing so.

Then we had our usual prayer time.  Accompanied by the guitar we sang a modern version of Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, culminating in the verse, “and though I walk the darkest path, I will not fear the evil one, for you are with me, and your rod and staff are the comfort I need to know.” I told the story of the shepherd boy who had learnt this psalm, and how he used it as a prayer holding each of his fingers in turn: “The”; “Lord”; “is”; “my”; “Shepherd”.  He died protecting his sheep, but when his body was found, he was holding his fourth finger.  And then we had a very brief prayer which concluded, “Lord, have mercy”.  At the end I explained to everyone that I had first heard it in Russian, in Moscow.

In recounting this I am not offering an answer to the question. But rather asking myself and others who seek to care sensitively for children who have experienced trauma and loss, how we can respond appropriately.  By this I mean, in a way that somehow “holds” the child and all his or her conflicting and ambivalent memories, sensations, feelings and emotions.  By drawing on Psalm 23 and the Russian “Jesus Prayer” I was digging very deep, because there was no way in which I was a dispassionate observer or counsellor.   For me this was far too close for any other sort of comfort.

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