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Children And The War

( Originally Published 1916 )

IT is curious that so many people who take it as a matter of course that children's questions about nature and machines should be fully answered, nevertheless hesitate when it comes to children's questions about war, and particularly about the present European war. It is as though we elders felt somewhat ashamed before our children that such a stupendous unreason could be carried on by grown-ups, and like the ostrich of the fable we pretend that there is no such thing, although we cannot hide the fact from the alert youngsters.

It is futile to ask whether children should be told about the war. Unless they are kept in solitary confinement, they are constantly getting information and misinformation in large instalments. The important question to ask is, What shall they be told?—or, How shall they be told?

We must make up our minds how we wish to have our children look upon war in general, and upon the facts of this particular war. We must decide whether they are to cultivate, through what they now learn, a spirit of militarism, or a narrow partisanship for this or that party to the conflict. Is information about war and fighting to develop an admiration for the soldier as the highest type of hero, or is it to establish the conviction that war is the normal and rational method for settling differences among nations?

It is because we fear the narrowing effects of partisanship, and the possibly brutalizing effects of militancy that most of us hesitate to encourage our children's interest in the war. But if our reasons are of this kind, we should go a step farther. We should recognize that a partisan is not a suitable person to give children information about the great struggle. Nor is such a person the one to explain to a child the causes of the war. Yet a parent may well take occasion to explain that because of birth, or early associations, or business interests, or family connections, he is very decidedly prejudiced one way or the other, and that he must therefore refrain from attempting to bias the judgment of others—especially of his children. To state frankly that you are prejudiced is no easy matter. But there is no better opportunity to teach the child the importance of suspending judgment and there is no better illustration of the fact that our judgments are not only colored, but badly warped by our feelings.

It. is the parent who hesitates because he does not wish to warp the child's mind, who should now find the best opportunity to review his history and acquire a perspective through which to study the events of the day. When a child is old enough to ask a question, he should have the best answer available, up to the limit of his understanding and interest. If he is old enough to be shocked by the reports of " atrocities " he is old enough to be taught that the whole miserable business is but a tangle of atrocities, and from the nature of things can never be anything else.

The child with ideals easily has his sensibilities out-raged by the accounts of a treaty violated, or of a neutral nation ruthlessly crushed to clear the way for a more powerful people. And we do well in trying to preserve these sensibilities against the hardening influences of the bloody story. But we must go farther. It is not enough to arouse the child's resentment against those who commit the wicked deeds. One does not need to go very far back in the history of our own times to discover that none of the nations now at war is entirely with clean hands. Nor is it enough to arouse resentment against the outrageous deeds. If feelings are to be aroused, they are to be directed against the whole scheme of life and thought that makes war a possibility.

It is not those parents who see in the military virtues the basis of the moral life, who hesitate about discussing the war with their children. On the contrary, these take advantage of every detail to impress upon their children the glories of sacrifice and hardship, or the nobility of this particular kind of public service. Those who hesitate are the very ones who fear that too much preoccupation with the war and its events will bias the mind of the child toward interest in martial affairs. Thus they lose a great opportunity to instil in them early a determination to use their powers to combat war. They lose the opportunity to impress the children with the tremendous destructiveness of war and with the importance of holding it in reserve for the most serious tasks of humanity. They lose the opportunity to counteract the military spirit that is only too ready to break loose on the slightest pretext.

Now that the interests of so many millions of people are centered about the war, we shall find it easier for children to learn important. historical and geographical facts than ever they could under the ordinary conditions supplied by the school or the home. In a few short years our children will be getting this information as school " lessons " with the usual travail and hardship. They will then have a real grievance that we did not let them learn what is important in the whole matter while the interest was most alert to assimilate all that came to the mind.

Children can profit from table-talk about the war in the same way as they can profit from home discussions about political or religious subjects. They unconsciously absorb a great deal of information, and learn a great deal about forming judgments. But if the discussion of the war consists of an exchange of vituperation, it is of course worth no more than a similar discussion of " politics " or religion. In fact, we must discuss with our children every topic of interest to them and. of importance in life, to the best of our ability and to the best of their understanding—and then hope that they will better the instruction.

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