From the editor
Thursday, July 01, 2004
A peace of my mind :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
As I open Use Your Words: A Child's Struggle to Understand War, I am grateful. "Someone is finally addressing the incredibly complicated concept of war for children," I think.
Its brightly colored cover is a kid's drawing of a flag, a soldier and a child.
How refreshingly simple: Ask children what they think of war. This is a book Donald Rumsfeld should have on his desk.
I hand it to our reporter writing about children and war. A dutiful guy, Graham Johnston reads the book. He stops me later.
"Are you sure you want this in the story?" he asks. "Yeah, it's great," I say. "A kid's perspective on war. Doesn't that fit the story?" Johnston looks at me, confused. "Have you read that book?"
My malady, as described here, is "editor's disease:" Assigning an article about something you have not researched, but have an opinion on nonetheless. Luckily, keen reporters such as Johnston mitigate the disease's effects. Everyone is prone to a bout of editor's disease. Politicians suffer from it unabashedly. I open the book.
With colorful children's art, the self-published author Robyn Rogers tries to explain war in a child's voice. Rogers writes: "I asked them why I am always told to use only my words when I am upset or angry, but our country's soldiers use weapons to fight in wars when America is upset or angry."
What a lovely, logical, simple, question, respectful of a child's intelligence. It's a question we should insist President George W. Bush answer. Why didn't we use more words? What happened to diplomacy? What happened to talking with the United Nations?
I am impressed. Then I read on. The book takes that simple question and holds it in contempt.
With elaborate double talk, the book tells children that you always use your words-except when you don't. It tells them words work only up to the point the president says they don't. Follow authority blindly-support the troops and support the president.
I agree we should support our troops. After all, these are our children. These young men and women are the people we have asked to fight for our ideas. But isn't the best way to support them to question the president and our leaders?
We should insist our president exhaust all talking options before endangering our children. After all, our magical gift, as Americans in a free country, is the right to disagree with our leaders.
Should we tell our children people who disagree with the president are bad Americans?
Because if that's true then 44 percent of Americans are bad. That's the percentage of Americans who disapprove of our president's actions, according to a recent National Annenberg Election Survey.
And we would probably have to count the members of the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks as bad too. After all, they say the president was wrong. They found "no credible evidence" Saddam Hussein was involved with al-Qaeda in the attacks against the United States. This, you remember, was one reason the president told us we had to invade Iraq. That along with the need to wipe out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction-which seem to be as real as the al-Qaeda connection to Saddam.
Rogers' book says: "I understand, it must be confusing to you, especially when we always tell you to use only your words."
It's not just children who are confused.
Should we shy away from telling children this is confusing and complicated? I know children need age-appropriate answers. I also know we should never go beyond the scope of a child's question. If they ask about war, we should not go into terrorism or nuclear bombs.
But children can understand adults don't have all the answers. They can understand our world leaders and even our soldiers don't always do the right thing. They can understand violence is never good.
In fact, this is a time to teach our children well, says Anne Parry, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health's Office of Violence Prevention. "If we don't address this at the front end with kids, then we are missing a primary educational opportunity to teach them how violence affects all of us."
Parry believes we should not be afraid to talk with children about what has gone wrong and how adults could better handle the situation. "We need to address violent behavior-whether it is bullying or physical violence-at the front end of a person's life.... It is better that we help children process these events in a way that says we all have to do better. "
And we certainly can find a better way to talk about the power of words than Rogers' book.
Ask, and sometimes ye shall receive.
Two days later, another book comes to my desk, the reissue of Leo Lionni's 1968 book, The Alphabet Tree.
This simple parable tells the story of letters living in the tree tops. When many of the letters are wiped away by a strong wind, the word-bug teaches them to form words to be stronger. It works. The words stand strong against the winds that would change them.
Next, a purple wooly caterpillar challenges the words: "Why don't you get together and make sentences-and mean something?" And, the caterpillar says, "Say something important."
Once the letters give it some thought, they form a simple but powerful sentence: "PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWILL TOWARD ALL MEN."
The caterpillar says, "Great," and directs the letters to climb on to its back. As the caterpillar climbs down the tree, the letters ask, "Where are you taking us?"
"To the President," says the caterpillar.