As part of WBEZ’s “Kids Ask” series, we are talking with kids and parents about challenging and perplexing questions asked by young children — ones that adults don’t always know how to answer.
Six-year-old Nora Diamond was out to dinner with her family at a German restaurant on a recent Friday night. As the oompah band played in the next room, images from Ukraine flashed on the TV above the bar. Nora, a typically inquisitive kid with sandy brown hair and a smile that matches her mom’s, wondered, “What’s happening?”
As Nora saw footage of bombed buildings and a boy around her age crying at a train station, her mother Michelle Argento said Nora’s questions grew more pointed. Nora grew more concerned, wondering why the boy couldn’t go home and if the people in the destroyed buildings were alive.
“She asked us what was going on with the war in Ukraine and what was war in general,” said Argento, who lives in Chicago.
Argento first reassured Nora that she was safe and they were not in danger.
“We said a war is when two countries are fighting and sometimes people die during those wars,” Argento told Nora.
Right there at the dinner table, Argento then broke down what was happening between Ukraine and Russia in terms she hoped Nora would understand. She said it was like the countries had pieces of a cookie.
“Russia was OK with that for a while, but are now saying ‘I want some of my cookie back,’ ” Argento told Nora. “They’re fighting with Ukraine to take the cookie back, but Ukraine wants to keep the cookie that they had. So now they’re fighting to keep the cookie.”
Argento knows it’s an oversimplification, and she didn’t talk about Russia’s role as the aggressor. She’s comfortable answering any questions Nora has, but she wonders what might be too much information at her young age.
“We didn’t want to go into … specifics,” said Argento, who works in higher education. “We thought that would be more traumatizing for her to talk about what was exactly happening at that train station, and with the bombing of this house that she had seen with the child that probably was dead.”
An expert weighs in
“Bravo to mom. She did a great job,” said Andria Goss, a social worker and associate vice president for clinical and community services at the Erikson Institute, a graduate program focusing on early childhood education.
Goss says it’s typical for young kids to ask questions about current events and even act things out during playtime. There isn’t one right way to answer these questions, but Goss says it’s important to recognize where your child is at developmentally to receive the information.
“[Argento] put it in terms and words [Nora] can understand,” Goss said. “It sounds like she kind of stayed present with her daughter, and her concern was to help her to feel safe, which is what we all need to feel.”
Goss says parents should allow their kids to talk freely and they shouldn’t avoid answering their questions all together.
“When we push it down, it becomes this big bad thing that we have no control over and it’s scary,” she said.
Goss said she gets why a parent might not want to talk about this issue. The adult can get anxious, too. Goss said it’s OK to revisit the conversation, and to tell your kid you weren’t ready to answer at the moment.
“We all make mistakes,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to focus on the relationships. As long as the relationship is healthy, there’s always an opportunity to redo and repair.”
Goss said while talking with kids about the war can be helpful, some children may find additional comfort by doing.
“That’s when kids start to write letters, or they hang a Ukrainian flag or [do] fundraising,” she said. “That is an active way of them feeling like they are helping, but also gives them a little sense of control.”
We want to hear from you. Have you had to tackle some tough questions from kids? They don’t have to be serious topics like war. All questions are welcome. Send a message to email@example.com.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.