One recent evening, as I was distractedly hustling around the kitchen getting dinner on with the TV news in the background, my 6-year-old son Adam stopped me in my tracks with a simple question: "Why is everyone always talking about Iraq, anyway?" Given my constant efforts to keep bad news away from him, I was surprised he'd overheard enough around the house to even know to ask. But, as we all know though, kids are amazingly perceptive. Even though I am a professional observer of international affairs, I found myself at a momentary loss as to how to explain complicated current events to Adam. I didn't want to dismiss his questions, but I also didn't want to scare him by describing too much of the nitty-gritty details of war.
Children want straight answers, and can often sense if you're hedging. My instincts are to keep answers clear and relatively short, and to avoid going beyond what my child has asked. I think it's best to let the child lead the discussion, while you answer in terms that your child can understand--both emotionally and intellectually. Most kids have a clear sense of fairness, which actually makes it easier to explain the basic principles of a complicated concept like democracy (i.e., "people have the right to choose their leader and the leader changes, so different people have a turn").
Here's how I addressed some of Adam's tough questions in the last few weeks. Hopefully, my responses will help other parents find answers for their children during these troubled times.
Q: Why is everyone always talking about Iraq, anyway?
A: Iraq is in the news these days because the United States along with other important countries in the world are trying to get its leader, Saddam Hussein, to give up some weapons they think he has.
Q: Why does he have to get rid of the weapons? Aren't they his?
A: About twelve years ago, the United States led a group of countries in a war against Iraq when Saddam tried to grab another country near it, Kuwait. When Iraq lost the war, Saddam promised to destroy his really bad weapons. But it seems that he may not have done what he promised. Now many countries in the world, including the United States, are worried that he still has those weapons and that he might try to hurt people around the world with them.
Q: How do we know if he has the weapons?
A: Most countries in the world belong to a club called the United Nations. Through the United Nations, the United States and other countries demanded that Iraq let them see what weapons may be left. The United States has been watching Iraq from satellites that are up in space. The satellites have huge cameras that seem to show that Iraq might still have weapons that Saddam promised to get rid of. Men and women chosen by the United Nations were in Iraq looking for weapons. They found a few weapons Iraq shouldn't have had, but the United States thinks he has more.
Q: Why are United States soldiers fighting in Iraq?
A: The United States and its very best friend, England, want to make sure that Saddam is not still hiding more weapons. They want to find them before he uses them. They told Saddam that if he didn't give his weapons to the inspectors that they would use their soldiers to take them away. President Bush gave Saddam a deadline to give up his weapons. Saddam didn't give up his weapons and so that's why our soldiers have moved into Iraq.
Q: Are the Iraqi people bad?
A: No. There are some bad people in Iraq, as there are in every country, but not all people in Iraq are bad, of course. Saddam has treated his own people very badly sometimes though, and he is not a good leader because of this.
Q: Will all the countries in the world go to war with Iraq too?
A: No. Right now, there are a lot of countries like France, Germany and Russia that really do not want a war with Iraq at all. Some of them might change their minds though, if it turns out that Iraq really is lying about the weapons.
Q: Will the United States and its friends win a war with Iraq?
A: The United States is the strongest country in the world. There are other countries in the world that have very strong armies, but for now, ours is the biggest and the best. Iraq has a pretty small army compared to ours. We should win a war against Iraq, as we did when we fought it with our friends twelve years ago. Our leaders do worry that Saddam will use some of the bad weapons we think he is hiding against our soldiers, but we are trying to get ready for that so that our soldiers are not hurt.
Q: Will people die in a war with Iraq?
A: Yes, some of our soldiers will die (unfortunately, some already have) and some Iraqis will die, too. That is why wars are so bad.
Q: If wars are bad, why is a good country like the United States fighting one?
A: This is a hard question, but a really good one. Sometimes even good countries have to use their own weapons and fight for what they think is right. Right now, the United States government is worried that Saddam Hussein will use his weapons to hurt Americans or other countries near him that are our friends. To make sure he doesn't do this, we are using our soldiers and airplanes to stop him. No one really wanted to go to war to do this, but our government thinks that it has to go to war to protect us.