Explaining War to Children

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Usually, I try to write funny, lighthearted stories or stories that can make you pause and perhaps think of things in a different way. This story is neither of those. There’s nothing funny or lighthearted about war, and nothing I can write will change that fact.

Simply put: war is bad, everything gets destroyed, innocent people die, and lives are forever changed. So why would I write about such a horrific topic? I have not one reason, but two. And they were in the back seat of our car riding to school.

I often wondered how one can explain war to children in a way that won’t frighten them and in a way that they can understand. Such a challenge was presented to me while driving our two granddaughters, Little One and Sweet Caroline, to school last week.

Hearing the conversation on the car radio about war in Ukraine, the girls asked, “Papa, what’s war?” There’re things in this world I wish the girls never had to learn about, and the evils of war are near the top of the list.

But still, they asked so I felt an obligation to answer somehow so I decided the best way was with an analogy — an analogy about a war that started where most of my stories start … back on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.

“Let’s imagine,” I started, “Down the Street Bully Brad wasn’t happy just being a bully and only beating me up. He wanted to beat everyone up. But that still wasn’t enough, he wanted much more. He wanted to make everyone on Flamingo follow his rules, doing only the things he allowed, and if you didn’t, he’d throw you in jail or worse.”

Sweet Caroline interrupted by saying, “He’s really mean!”

Pulling into the school parking lot, I responded, “Yes, Bully Brad was really mean, but that’s not all. He wasn’t happy just with conquering the Flamingo Street neighborhood. After a few years, he and his gang of three marched through the woods and took over The Duke of Gloucester. All the grownups and all the kids who lived on The Duke and Flamingo had to do whatever Bully Brad said or they would be taken away and thrown into …”

“Taken away from their mommies and daddies? What about their stuffies? Who fed their dogs or Guinea pigs?”

“They couldn’t bring any stuffies with them, and all the dogs, cats, and Guinea pigs were left home alone,” I said, “but that’s not all. After a few more years, Bully Brad and his gang of three decided to invade Scenic Terrace, the last neighborhood in the tri-street area. Now he had three neighborhoods, and everyone who lived there had to do whatever he said and only have jobs he approved of. And they had to give him most of the money they earned. And no one on Flamingo, The Duke, or Scenic Terrace was big enough to do anything about it.”

“Not even Bubba Hanks! You said he was the biggest kid who ever lived on Flamingo. Even Bubba couldn’t stop Bully Brad?”

“No, as big and strong as he was, not even Bubba Hanks by himself could stop Bully Brad and his gang of three from wanting more and more neighborhoods.”

The girls got their backpacks on and double-checked to see if they had their water bottles and lunch boxes. “Did he take over all the neighborhoods in the whole world? Did anyone stop him?”

“Yes, finally a bunch of the surrounding neighborhoods all got together and put a stop to Bully Brad and his gang of three. They were kinda like NATO is today.” I explained what being a member of NATO meant and then told them about the current bully raging war in Europe.

“A man named Putin has been the boss of a huge neighborhood called Russia for the last twenty years. Everyone who lives there must do what he says. But now, he isn’t happy just being the boss of Russia, he’s currently fighting to take over the neighborhood next door called Ukraine, but he won’t stop there. Next, Putin will fight and take over the neighborhood called Belarus, then Moldova and Georgia.”

The girls looked worried, then I added, “Not our Georgia. There’s another one next to Russia. None of these neighborhoods are members of NATO, so we simply can’t jump in and help out.”

“That’s not fair! Someone must stop him! He’s a big bully!”

Moving up in the carpool line, I knew the conversation about war had to end soon, so I asked, “What would y’all do?”

“Find a bunch of folks bigger than Bubba Hanks. Tell them to grab Putin, spank him and throw him in Time Out forever!”

“Send that bully to his room and make him go to bed every night without dinner!”

“Don’t worry,” I said with confidence, trying to easy their concern, “I’m sure there’s someone out there right now about to grab that big bully Putin, spank him for what he has done, and then send him to his room … forever.”

I gave the Girly Girls a kiss on the cheek and watched as they climbed out of the car and walked safely into school to start their day. Driving off, I thought of all the children in Ukraine that aren’t going to school today, tomorrow, next week or next month. And how all of them are no longer safe in their neighborhoods.

Then I said out loud to no one, “At least I hope there is.”

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]