Newspaper and television reports in recent weeks have been filled with images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and of American civilians who have been murdered. Parents might wish they could shield their children from such disturbing photos and reports, but that may not be possible.
Many adults understandably wish that their children didn't have to know about what has happened, but they shouldn't try to conceal the facts. Instead, they should look at this as an opportunity for children to learn some important lessons.
First, don't try to hide your own reactions to the grisly pictures. This is one way of teaching children the values that will guide them through life. Seeing your disgust will teach them that such treatment of one human by another is wrong, and never justified. Seeing your shame will show them that we must take responsibility for the suffering of others.
Young children who have been exposed to images of war and abuse will worry about their own safety: "If people can hurt each other like that, will they hurt me or my parents?" They'll wonder: "How can people get so out of control? Who is in control? Anybody?"
In the early years, children rely on parents to help them stay in control. When they see pictures of adults who appear to have no self-limits, they are bound to be frightened of their own feelings and limited ability to keep themselves in check. Children who have seen these images are likely to lose control more easily and may test parents' ability to contain them.
If a child asks, "Are we safe?" a parent who wants to maintain his trust must answer honestly. And the honest reply is "No." It is a sad new realization that we can no longer offer our children this basic reassurance. But we have entered the war zone in which so much of the rest of the world lives.
Parents should follow up by letting the child know that you'll do all you can to protect him. Say something such as: "We will certainly try to keep you safe. But our family needs to stand up for treating other people right - no matter what."
The new threat to our safety is a critical opportunity to show children that two wrongs do not make a right. If we fail to teach this lesson, we are setting up cycles of war and retaliation from one generation to the next.
School-age children will ask "Why did those soldiers do that? Why did they want to hurt those people?" Behind such questions is the concern for their own safety that they share with younger kids.
Parents can explain that anger and hatred prevent clear thinking and can lead to actions people regret. Hatred sometimes comes from fear for our own survival. But all too quickly it can sweep us into self-destructive action. Hatred also comes from a misunderstanding of differences.
Contact Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow by mail: c/o the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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