Talking to a six-year-old about war
It was one of those magical LA Sundays with our six-year-old son, Wyatt. At the edge of the Pacific, in Santa Monica, we practiced on his bike with the training wheels. On the beach, we dug “Orcaville” and “Barracuda Falls,” Wyatt’s plastic whales and fishes plunging into the holes as the waves crashed beside us. We hit the arcade at Santa Monica pier; we ate tacos and quesadillas; we walked to the end of the pier, where just below, a sea lion splashed playfully, looking up — and smiling, we thought — directly at us.
As we walked back down the steps from the pier, Wyatt pointed to the beach — to what, I wasn’t sure at first. We approached. There on a huge expanse of beach stood hundreds of red and white crosses, symbolizing Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The memorial is set up next to the pier every Sunday by Veterans for Peace. At “Arlington West,” the symbolic gravesites stand against a backdrop of hundreds of people eating hot dogs, riding the Ferris wheel and splashing in the ocean. But when you enter the space, everything changes. Everything suddenly seems quiet.
“What are these for?” Wyatt wanted to know. In another moment I might have steered him away. I might have just said, Oh, I’m not completely sure — hey, look over there! But here we were, and Wyatt wanted to know. So I told him that these crosses represented soldiers who were killed in wars. “Are their bodies right here?” he asked. No, I said, the crosses are symbols — they are here to show us that war is really really bad. Sometimes kids like to play with toy guns, I said, or their Lego guys shoot at other guys. But this is what really happens. It’s very very sad, I said, and that’s why it’s important to know that war takes people away from us.
It’s hard to know how much to say, and when, how, and whether to say it. My wife Andrea and I almost never listen to the news with Wyatt in the car. Even when we do tune into political debates or the conventions on TV, we frequently have to turn down the sound when someone starts talking about terrorist attacks in Nice or Baghdad, civilians killed in drone attacks in Yemen, police assassinated in Dallas, or unarmed black men slain by police in Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Florida, North Carolina, and too many other places. Even as I crouched next to Wyatt in front of the crosses, the story of the three police officers killed in Baton Rouge, unbeknownst to me at the time, was just breaking.
All this we protect him from. Perhaps it is a universal parental urge to shield your children from certain hard knowledge. Perhaps it is also because the part of the world and neighborhood we live in affords us that privilege. On the other hand, an 89-year-old Jewish friend of mine told me her parents kept knowledge of the Nazis from her, even as the family hastily left Germany in 1933 and Amsterdam in 1940. My friend recalls growing up without the fear of persecution.
For us, with Wyatt, when something starts to slip in, and he asks about it, we’ll say, grownup stuff. So far, when that happens, he always lets it drop.
But in front of the sea of crosses at the beach, Wyatt was fully aware and present.
He wanted to read some of the names on the crosses. We did. Then he pointed to a photograph of a fallen American soldier in uniform, pinned to one of the crosses. “Who’s that?” he asked. That’s someone who’s gone now, I said. It’s very sad, I said.
Behind us was a white board with a sign above it — “What would you do to promote peace in the world?” I read it to Wyatt. Immediately he took a marker and wrote.
Then I put him on my shoulders and we walked back to the car, to go back home to see Mommy.