Talking (and Not Talking) with Children about War

Thoughts today with readers in Ukraine, and also in Russia, but I don’t think I have any accompanying words other than to wish you and yours well. There is no comparison with the gravity of the situation for those directly affected, but teachers in the rest of the world will be wondering as I have about how to talk, and not talk, about the war with our classes. Here’s one helpful article from a past conflict and I’m sure more will follow. Tom has also written about talking about the news generally in this piece for headteacher update. These are my thoughts so far about my own classes for mostly UK-based children:

1.    Don’t push it down kids’ throats. As with the pandemic, the appetite of children for discussing it will vary, from those with a ghoulish fascination to those with very high levels of anxiety. If it catches on as a theme in a discussion about something else, after a few comments I will park the subject, say something reassuring, and then either invite those who want to discuss it further to stay at the end of a session or perhaps arrange a special session for those who want one. I will gently correct any misconceptions, and if someone asks me a direct question about the facts I will answer it. 

2.    Name the war. Most children’s knowledge of war will be of the world wars and other conflicts directly involving their own country. So just saying “the war” rather than “the war in Ukraine” risks connecting with all sorts of nebulous fears and misleading schemas for understanding what is happening.

3.    Model stoic thinking. I will be open about how I am managing my own thinking about the war, and the philosophical tradition of stoicism I’m drawing on. The stoics wanted to avoid being beset by powerful negative emotions such as fear, greed, sadness and anger. They thought the best way to avoid those emotions, while still leading a good life in which you tried to make things better, was to concentrate your attention on things you can control, and I can’t control the war. So, I’ll be limiting the amount of news I watch and keeping my attention on the things I can at least partially control, like my work and being a good friend. 

They also thought it helped not to be caught by surprise by bad things but to expect them in advance so as not to be so upset by them. So, I remind myself that there will be lots of uncertainty, lots of rumour and misinformation, and lots of cruel and sad stories, including very affecting stories about children who have suffered or lost loved ones, that will make the world seem like a bad place, even though most of the world will be carrying on as before. Newspapers and television wanting bigger audiences will heighten the drama. So, I shouldn’t be surprised by any of these when they happen, and because I won’t be surprised, my emotions should not be as forceful. 

4.    Think clearly and carefully. One thing that is at least partly under our control is how we think, and by thinking clearly and carefully we are in a way doing the opposite of how wars start, which is almost always a result of thinking badly. 

One sort of failing to think is lumping together things that belong apart. It is easy with this new misery in the news, added to ongoing environmental concerns and following on from the pandemic, to become despondent about people in general. But though there are some connections between all these things, they are not one continuous mess of awfulness from which we should conclude that human beings are generally rubbish. Each problem is its own thing.

Another sort of failing to think is to only think about one side of things. The pandemic was awful, but millions of people gave up freedoms and worked incredibly hard for the health of others; during this war, many nations and thousands of people who are not directly affected will help those who are, and very brave individuals within Russia itself are already protesting the war. Of course, it would be much better if there weren’t pandemics and wars, and the good they bring out of people doesn’t make up for the suffering they cause. But there is good in the world as well as bad, and if we forget that we are lapsing into lazy thinking, which is the opposite of good philosophy.

Best wishes,


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