“My husband and I have family in both Saudi Arabia and Iran who took very different sides in the Gulf Conflict. Our son, A, found this impossible. Last week he accused his white class teacher of hurting his family. She was particularly upset by this and said she had been on a peace march and was against the war. I too teach juniors and find the questions about my ethnic background difficult. Just as hard is the staffroom where views range from banning computer games to sticking victory flags on maps of the Middle East.”
The existence of war in the Gulf has major personal and social implications and reverberations which most of us found disturbing. For those with relatives who were directly involved, either because they are in the armed forces or because they live in or came from the countries closest involved, like Mrs B and her family, the impact is even greater. However, for most people, there is an awareness of common suffering whatever the political view they hold. Nobody expects an individual who has suffered a bereavement to manage ordinary living immediately. However, in a time of war, especially where the hostilities are geographically distant, nations are expected to continue as normal.
Whilst some adults struggle with new feelings of helplessness, many children are in a different position. They know what it is like to be helpless in the face of decisions made above them. What is of concern for them is how the usually powerful adults who look after them are preoccupied, short-tempered or distressed. Angry feelings and actions inside the home determine the way in which real war is experienced and fantasised about.
As adults looking after or working with children our primary duty is to try and process our own feelings so that we can attend to the needs of the children. Whilst, like Mrs B, we feel uncertain of our position, our children’s questions are harder to deal with. As well as trying to define our own responses, there is a group task. Within schools, hospitals and clinics there needs to be a democratic climate in which adults can hold different opinions without fear. This is hard to achieve at times of stress when adults, let alone children, are driven to become polarised, as Mrs B’s colleagues have, seeing only saints or devils. In such an environment, her predicament, as someone with links on both sides of the conflict, is difficult to think about.
Thomas aged 9, in a school assembly, worriedly reported that his parents had a fight over who was going to the peace march and who would stay at home and look after him. His class teacher commented that it must have been hard for him to hear his parents disagree. To have become involved in the external situation- the different political views his parents had, would have missed the point since it was the consequences of the differences between the adults which mattered most to him. For him, the only issue that mattered was whether he would become a war orphan if his family split up in hostility.
What about A’s aggression at school? In answering that she did not believe in the war his teacher mislocated his central concern. Had she, like Thomas’s teacher, managed to pick out his real concern for his family by saying he must be worrying about their safety, there might have been a different outcome.
For Mr and Mrs B to discuss their family situation at an appropriate level with their son they need to know how their political views relate to family conflicts. Family rifts are picked up only too well by children and it is likely that conflicts about preserving ethnic pride and becoming assimilated have caused prior family discord.
Where children face painful external life events like sexual abuse in their family a war is like their own circumstances magnified.
This is not to deny the real political feelings children and adults have and should have and the importance of proper forums for those issues. However, that is not the task of the child-care worker or parent. If the human issues of fear, loss, powerlessness, courage and ideals are raised and shared it is possible to stay in touch with the common humanity of warring nations and listen to the personal concerns of children. Perhaps Mrs B would be able then to deal with the questions her class have asked her.