Difficult Words

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Usually, I share my personal narrative first and then I share resources. This time, I’m going to switch it up. I’m going to share the resources which have helped me first so that you can find what you are looking for, quickly.

I hope that they give you the words, and the courage, to broach a difficult subject.

War is the very antithesis of what we raise our children to believe about humanity and our collective identity. It is human to struggle when trying to explain to children that adults are not listening to, or following the basic rules for kindness and compassion that we instill in our children.

These resources helped me to find the words. I hope that they will help you too. There are many resources on the internet but these are my top 3.

1. Department of Education, UK

This resource was particularly helpful when it came to structuring conversations with my older child. It raises the issue of dialogue and the curbing of misinformation.

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Difficult Words, My Swiss Story, Image credit: Department for Education, UK

2. What Happened to My World ?

This book, also found here as a pdf was created after 9/11. It offers guidance on managing expectations and grief in the wake of world changing events, from acts of terrorism, to war and to climate catastrophe.

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Difficult Words, My Swiss Story, Image Source: Amazon.co.Uk

3. Save the Children, UK

I found the guidance here particularly helpful. It has been specifically updated to discuss Ukraine and the reality of our lives now where, as parents, we are consuming this war 24/7 digitally.

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Difficult Words, My Swiss Story, Image source: Save The Children, UK (This little girl has been identified on the website as Olha, but her name has changed).

Why did I decide to talk to my children about war?

Wow. What a week. Another week in a long list of weeks where it feels like our collective hearts are in our collective mouths. The images of desperation, brutality and devastation that we are seeing from the war in Ukraine are soul-crushing. Bombed schools, babies born in basements, mothers standing helpless in front of ambulances, fathers rushing their toddlers into hospitals – it feels impossible to look away because we feel that we have a responsibility to look and bear witness. As we watch people suffer, a voice inside me tells me that I should watch and remember. At the same time, watching and not being able to turn away feels voyeuristic.

As an adult, I am mindful of the fact that I am consuming the war in Ukraine digitally. I am trying to verify information before I share it or talk about it and I am making sure that I don’t espouse any ‘hot takes’. I am mindful that the cost of human suffering is the most human of losses and really, all I can do is to frame all of this with compassion, empathy. It feels self indulgent to say – and write – that the act of consuming the war digitally (without feeling like I can look away) is emotionally taxing. But the truth is, it is.

As a parent, I find myself wanting to protect my children from the harsh and brutal realities of war. The breakdown of the ski holidays have been such that my own children will return to school this week. They haven’t been exposed to the playground since the war began and I believed that they hadn’t heard anything about it besides what we have talked about in whispers at home.

My five year old daughter had been almost blissfully unaware whilst my ten -nearly eleven year old son – has been more aware of my hushed conversations with my husband. His class WhatsApp also has mentions of the war spliced alongside skiing and holiday updates (such is life in the 21st century).

It was when my son came to me to talk that I realised I couldn’t pretend to him that this wasn’t happening and that I had to find the words to talk about war, somehow.

A little about me: as a person – rather than a parent – I am someone who talks a lot with my peers. I try to work things out within myself before talking to my children about those same issues. I have the privilege – right now – of time. I think I’ve managed to keep my composure this week but inside, I’ve been a mess. I’ve channeled my nervous energy into donating money and gathering items to donate to various drop-off points in the city of Zurich. I’ve then come home and not really spoken about it. I’ve been sharing things online but not really creating the space to talk about it in my family. I have been shying away from these difficult words, believing that I could protect my children by safely ensconcing them in a bubble. After all, in the space of the last two years, they have heard mention of death and disease almost every day.

But that’s not how it works and that’s not the world we live in now. We are on social media, we watch TV – it is not possible to shield children from the world’s harshest realities even if we want to. It would be naive to assume that we can switch off. There is no ‘off’. And, when it does come – as we are learning now – it comes at a huge cost.

But, how to do it? How to talk?

By being developmentally appropriate. My five year old doesn’t need to know the same things that my ten- nearly eleven – year old, does.

So, at first, we talked together about why the Zurich Operahaus is illuminated in blue and yellow, every evening. We talked about the Ukrainian flag, we learned that the capital city is pronounced Kyiv and not Kiev. We learned that Ukraine’s national flower is the sunflower.

And then, we spoke about war.

Speaking to my daughter who is 5

My five year old helped me to pack a donation box. We filled it with her warm clothes and winter coats that she has outgrown. We also put in some tinned food, some fruit pouches, toothbrushes and sanitary towels. Our neighbours donated their baby carrier, blankets, baby bottles that hadn’t been used and pacifiers. I don’t drive and my husband wasn’t home. So, together, my daughter carried the box down to the drop-off point in our village. The donations were organised by www.helpukraine.ch . On the way, we spoke about the war. I tried to explain it in the simplest terms that I could. She, on the other hand, asked questions that belied her age. She asked why people are not being kind and why they want to hurt each other. She hoped that the ‘polizei’ would save everyone. She has high hopes from ‘grown-ups’ and it does break my heart that we are disappointing her. I hope that we live up to our children, one day.

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Difficult Words, My Swiss Story, Image credit: Nayana Chakrabarti

Speaking to my son, who is 10

My son and I had a more nuanced conversation. He has garnered and gleaned bits and pieces here and there. As a result, I spoke to him about our need to verify information, the difference between disinformation and misinformation. I also spoke to him about how we should make space for all refugees in our conversation. We spoke about the many different global wars that are raging right now. For example, we looked at an Instagram post about Yemen together. The conversation wasn’t easy. Wars remain antithetical to the values we teach our children and my son is old enough to spot adult hypocrisy when he sees it. Moreover, I urged him to talk to his father and myself about anything he hears about the war at school. Many of his classmates are on TikTok – a source of information which is both prone to being maniapulated but also -very often – reporting news that is current – more current than the news channels.

So, now they know and they have questions. My son has been asking about nuclear war and nuclear holocausts and fallouts and what we should stockpile and so on and so forth. My daughter wants to know if all the little children got to take their toys with them when they left their homes. She’s been wanting to donate some toys except no one is able to carry toys at the moment. Thus, that’s on hold for now.

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Difficult Words, My Swiss Story, Image Credit: Aryahi Bhattacharya

My childrens’ art teacher drew sunflowers with them this weekend. We have stuck it on our wall now, as a message of hope and resilience. We have talked about how there is always much more good in the world than bed. We have talked about my favourite Fred Rogers’ quotation (” When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”). We have spoken about how we can be the helpers.

And finally, my son and I spoke about how all that separates us from a family that is currently actively seeking refuge is luck, pure dumb luck. We are talking every day now about the need for kindness and compassion. We hope that if the wheels of fortune were to turn against us one day, we too will be met with kindness and empathy.

Every night I’ve hugged my children a little tighter, loved them a little longer.

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To read posts from February, click here

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