There's downtown Baghdad. And it's on fire.
There's a missile exploding into the shadowy confines of a tank.
And there are the dusty soldiers holding their automatic weapons and firing loudly in what looks like a scene from a chartreuse-colored violent video game.
The media have promised that they'll bring us the war. Live. In all of its fiery and potentially bloody glory. And they've stuck to that promise. These incessant, frightening images have not just been limited to TV. They're being discussed in depth and detail on the radio, in casual conversations. War talk and imagery is everywhere. It's hard for anyone not to hear or see something about the war between the US-led allied forces and Iraqi soldiers, even if you're just three feet tall. Grownups tend to forget that it's very easy to suddenly come face-to-face with a violent image on a magazine cover on a rack that's just your height at the grocery store checkout line.
In a 24/7 news climate, where a war is unfolding live in your living room, child developmental experts say it's crucial for parents to guide their children through this tumultuous time by not only curtailing, or just turning off, violent television images, but by talking to their kids openly about war and reassuring them of their safety.
"Personally, I don't think we can shield children from all the aspects of the war," says Dr. David Fassler, child psychiatrist and trustee of the American Psychiatric Association. "... We know that exposure to such coverage can be upsetting."
Just look at the recent media coverage of the Americans taken hostage by Iraqi troops, some of whom appeared to have been executed. Some still pictures of their dead bodies were aired on many news casts at all hours of the day. And when there aren't bodies on the TV, there are bombs or gunfire featured prominently every time you turn on the TV news, the radio or pick up the newspaper and put it on the kitchen counter.
No matter how responsible parents attempt to be in protecting their children from war and terrorism news, "They're going to hear about it," Dr. Fassler says.
This concern has prompted an array of groups–from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC) to the American Psychiatric Association (APA)–to issue guidelines for parents about how to broach the topic of war and terrorism with their children and to warn adults not to be dismissive of youthful worries and fears.
The biggest mistake parents make when it comes to war coverage, experts say, is to assume that children, even as young as four, aren't paying attention. And when those kids ask questions about bombs or bodies, the worst thing parents can do is to pat them on the head and say, "Don't worry about that." That normal parental reaction will simply drive children's fears underground, prompting them to discuss bombs and soldiers with the most ill-informed group: Their peers.
"Children do hear about [war and terrorism] and do try to figure things out," says Diane Levin, Boston-based Wheelock College professor of early childhood education. "More [children] get it than we think."
With the complicated and emotionally charged issue of war, children need their parents to explain what's happening and why, says Levin, author of Teaching Young Children in Violent Times.
But should parents be proactive and bring up the war or just wait and take cues from their children's behavior or questions? The answer, experts say, is both, depending on a child's temperament and age.
Levin says she recently saw grade school kids reenacting the US testing of a 21,000-pound "mother of all bombs" in Florida before the war began. When asked by a teacher what they were doing, one boy responded, "We're playing 'bomb.'" This type of situation affords adults a perfect segue to ask kids what they know about bombs and the potential war with people they trust, as well as a chance to dispel misinformation.
"Kids should know that you're willing to answer questions," Dr. Fassler says. "But I wouldn't push kids to talk if they don't seem interested."