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Talking with Children about Images of War and Torture
Faith Development, Families & Faith Development

Keeping Faith, Growing Compassion

By Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D., Resource Developer, Unitarian Universalist Association Lifespan Faith Development

May 12, 2004

Front-page images of war, torture and humiliation appear this week as regularly as orange juice, cookie crumbs and notices from school on our kitchen counter.  I am worried about this addition to our altar of daily life—worried that I will explain too much or too little, worried that these images will become normal.  My ten-year old daughter seems disinterested.  But she has paused to notice the photos.  My teenage son declares, "I guess this is a pretty dark piece of our history," begging for conversation, wanting to know more deeply just what has happened.  My young nephews are unaware—unable to know fantasy from reality.  They are many building-blocks away from being able to understand media and war. 

How can I be faithful and present for these children that I love?  How can we, as Unitarian Universalists, find our way together?

Navigating these moments with children requires our careful listening. We find out what they know about the current news and let that guide our conversation. A discarded newspaper; a television running in the background while children have a play date; talk overheard between two parents waiting for their kids at school, can all act as sources of information.

We must listen to children: present, available, and gentle with our questions. "What's new?" starts a conversation. Knowing about the unfolding of a day makes us aware of our children's tone and context. While we may feel clouded by images of abuse and pain for our global nation, children's thinking is often centered on themselves and their worlds of school, friends and life. Our young children are often unaware of life outside their immediate circles, and that is developmentally appropriate. It's okay if children don't know. It's fine to turn off the TV.

School age children are more likely to know about current travesties. Again, start by finding out about them and what is on their minds. We then might ask: "Are people talking about Iraq at school?" And we're ready for what they have to say. In early elementary school years, children may be interested in understanding "who are the bad guys?" They may be fascinated by images of humiliation. They are often very concrete and dichotomous in their thinking. It's very possible for children to think that whatever "good guys" do is ok.

As Unitarian Universalists, we can reclaim our faith in these important interactions with our children. We can express compassion, and at the same time share our own shock and bewilderment at the abuse of prisoners. We reframe children's thinking ("this is a hard situation because good and bad guys really aren't clear") and explain that injustice and cruelty are always bad. We may say that it is sad when people are in wars where they do things without thinking about their values. I tell my school age daughter, "I can't really explain that picture. I truly believe that every person is inherently good, so when I see such awful things, I know that these people are in a situation where they are not able to be fully themselves." I summon a piece of my parish benediction and say, "I don't know what it is like to 'hold on to what is good, return to no person evil for evil,' in the context of war." I let there be some silence between us, so that we can ponder those thoughts together.

And I express the same thoughts to my teenager. We talk through what he knows about current events, and he tells me his theories and politics. And I know how fortunate I am for that conversation. I try to remember to listen with a faithful heart. I fill in what I know about our history, but I tell him that we only see selected images and hear interpretive news. I urge him to think of the inherent worth and dignity of all people; I urge him to keep his passion for peace. And I tell him that we can work for peace together.

But I could envision, with equal likelihood, another day when my teenager might not say much at all. How can we support our youth then? I believe we can best do this by me modeling and living out our faith with them. We respect their closed doors, but offer the comforts of good food and honesty. If it is true, we say, "These pictures from the newspaper keep going through my mind, is that happening to you?" and see if that opens a door. We can make these connections most effectively when we focus on being gentle, humble and honest.

We can add a chalice—the least perfect one, an upside down flower pot painted only in parts—to the kitchen counter altar of life, and light it without ceremony. In times like these, we need to be intentional about keeping the flame of our faith burning bright. We can make seeking peace important in our everyday lives as we listen faithfully and compassionately, to our children.

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