Without a shadow of doubt
We were at Cancun Airport’s Gate 11, waiting to board our flight home. Hubby and I couldn’t ignore the alarming news alerts popping up on our phones every few minutes, and the kids noticed.
“So what’s going on?” asked our son.
Up to that point, the kids had been basking in our rare tropical vacation, enthralled by howler monkeys and coatis, snorkeling with the sea turtles, body surfing in the bathtub-temp ocean, agog at an almost miraculous buffet. (Seriously, the fare was like the loaves and the fishes: Highly appreciated, endlessly restocked.) They were both mostly outdoors and media-free for at least a few days.
But since we had an hour before boarding, and Hubs and I were obviously concerned about something big going on, we decided to talk about it.
This went perfectly fine for our son, a military history fanatic who’s keen on current events. The previous week when we were packing for our trip, he had randomly asked us: “What do you guys think Putin’s next move might be? Will he actually invade Ukraine, do you think?”
Admittedly, up to that point I’d been overly absorbed in wrapping up work projects, and in that moment I was searching for suntan lotion. I had only a vague awareness of a potential political situation way way over there somewhere. But it was easy to fall back on “Well, who knows what Putin is capable of, the guy’s a pathological narcissist,” because it’s an appropriate assessment across the board for almost any situation where he’s involved.
The conflict would be more difficult to frame appropriately for our daughter, who has anxiety and is just generally super-sensitive. If she’s at school and witnesses one kid throwing shade at another kid’s lunch, her whole day is wrecked: “How could someone hurt someone’s feelings like that? Everyone should be able to eat what they like. I mean, it’s just so wrong!”
I think that’s the point, though: Kids can distinguish right from wrong, as well as understand critically important concepts such as rights, equality, and freedom. The facts of the Russia-Ukraine war, and any conflict, really, can be explained to children in these most basic terms. And, through their awareness of other peoples’ reality, our kids can learn to better appreciate what they have. And I have absolutely no doubt that that is a damn important lesson.
Given all of this, we explained the Russia-Ukraine war to our daughter as “a big bully picking on a much smaller kid” situation. “The bully’s trying to look tough in front of everyone, taking things from the little kid, so people will be scared of him and then he can do whatever he wants, take anything he wants from others too.” (We’ve also talked about how many many Russians do not approve of the bully’s actions, and how he’s hurting them as well. After all, we have Russian friends and family who are lovely and kind people.)
She was curious to see some of the news reports, so I showed her pictures of families camped out in the Kiev subway system, some with pets, others playing guitar, or trumpet, or singing:
We talked about how most of these innocents did not expect their lives to be upended like this. There’s been couples married and babies born down there, underground. “We’re lucky we get to go home and sleep in our own beds tonight hon, we have to remember that.”
“That makes me sad, mom, let’s talk about something else now, OK?”
But since then, both kids have brought it up again and again with their questions and concerns, and we’ve prayed together during our regular dinner Grace for everyone involved.
What we’re not talking about with them, however, is the threat of nuclear weapons, which is difficult for us as adults to get our heads around, never mind children. How many Cold War kids were psychologically traumatized by that spectre? It’s not reassuring that the aggressors are already allegedly using controversial modern-day yet barbaric weapons such as thermobaric vacuum bombs and cluster bombs in the vicinity of civilians:
It’s also not reassuring that several military experts feel that Putin is unstable enough to go nuclear. While we’re not sure how such an event may directly impact us, we have no doubt that it would, in some way. The shadow that threat casts is both chilling and grounding: It makes it a lot easier to keep perspective, to be grateful for what we have, to choose kindness. And I’m quite sure that those are critical lessons for all of us.