Talking war with a 10-year-old

Kids lose some of their simplicity because of this country's harsh reality.

student school 88 (photo credit: )
student school 88
(photo credit: )
Different parents dread fielding different questions from their kids. Some get nervous when their children ask them the stork-related questions. Others get butterflies when the kids ask if they ever cheated on tests in school. Still others turn crimson when junior queries whether they ever tried marijuana. Me, I get nervous when my kids - at least the pre-bar mitzva ones - start asking questions about the war, or the world's reaction to it. "Abba, why are they doing this?" my youngest son asks of Hizbullah. "In order to win, we'll have to lose a lot of soldiers, right?" It's not as if I don't know "why they're doing this," or that the war will indeed extract a high and painful toll. It's just that it saddens me to have to discuss it with my 10-year-old. I want to talk to him about sports, his friends, food, summer homework, movies, making his bed, kicking his brother. I don't want to talk to him about Hizbullah, Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad, why they hate us, whether Kofi Annan is bad for the Jews, if Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Udi Regev are still alive, and why we can't go on our planned vacation to the north. FIELDING these questions pains me for two reasons: first, because they reflect a reality so different from the secure one I grew up with in the US, and the one I wanted to create for my kids; and secondly because they reflect a reality that seems similar - in a very remote way, but still similar - to stories my mother told me about the beginnings of World War II. My mother, who spent the war hiding from the Nazis in Holland, used to say that the first days of the German invasion were - oddly enough - fun. It all seemed like a big game, she said, even dream-like: paratroopers falling from the sky, the adults being especially nice to the kids and giving them candy to keep them happy. But then the paratroopers turned into storm troopers, the candy stopped, and the war never ended. Here, too, the war has changed - in little ways - how my wife and I relate to our kids. Concerned about the health content of food, we wonder whether a little monosodium glutamate in the instant soup meals that the kids love but which we ration is really - considering the country's missile-laden reality - all that dangerous. And, super-strict when it comes to curfews, we now ask ourselves whether another 30 minutes here or there would really be all that terrible. "Think of the pressure they are under," my wife urges. And they are under pressure, though obviously nowhere near that facing their contemporaries in the north. Their anxiety comes nowhere near what it's like to sit in sweltering bomb shelters, or to bounce from the home of one stranger in the center of the country to the next. My kids' tension is different; it is the result of uncertainty and insecurity, not of immediate physical danger. They want to know that everything will be okay, that we will win, that prayers will be answered, that life will go back to what it was before July 12. I assure them that it will, but can't tell them when. PRE-TEENS ARE a fascinating lot. They look for predictability and order in the universe. They see things in black-and-white terms. They get self-validation from being popular. If someone is well liked, then that person must be okay. It's a simple way of looking at a complicated world. And it's a simplicity clashing mightily with the current war. With Katyushas killing at random, nothing is predictable. With no clear victor and vanquished, things are not black and white. And if so much of the world thinks we're wrong, then how can we be right? Sooner or later everyone loses his childlike view of the universe. Uncertainty becomes the norm; gray areas mysteriously appear; what others think matters much less. What pains me is watching my kids lose some of that simplicity so young because of this country's harsh reality. There is another reason why I try to avoid fielding war questions: I just don't have many of the answers. I strive, as a parent, to be an external locus of certainty and security for the kids (at least when they're talking to me). But "I don't know, sweetheart" just doesn't fit into that locus-of-certainty paradigm. I try to make the kids feel protected. But in times like this, being able to insulate and protect is a tall order. Children smell their parents' concern, and nowadays it's a tough scent to hide. THE DEEP sadness of all this was brought home to me when, in a talk about the war with my youngest son, I felt the need to recycle into Hebrew the old Yiddish saying I heard as a child: Shver tsu zayn a yid - It's tough to be a Jew. It's funny, some may say even metaphysical, that regardless of how many phrases and slogans eventually lose their traction, this one always seems so relevant, generation after generation. Which is not exactly the lesson I always dreamed of handing down to my children.