The mouths of babes


THE VOICE of the 2-year-old is heard in the land, a cross between the sound of fingernails on a blackboard and the Concorde taking off.

"No news!" she keens as the modulated voice of some British broadcaster who has managed to remain in Baghdad provides a polite counterpoint. "No news!"

A good deal has been said about how to prepare our children for the horror of war, and some of it has been useful and thoughtful, and some is errant nonsense. But no one seems to focus on one of the most enduring features of this conflict on some home fronts -- that the children think the adults have lost it.

The same people who once intoned "no war toys" while steering their sons into the model airplane aisle and who repeated constantly that television was trash have been studying Peter Arnett and watching Patriots chase Scuds.

Much has been written about how we can reassure our children. But the reassurance has been based on believing the narrowest concerns and fears are theirs.

Last week I watched a psychologist work with an elementary school class as television eavesdropped.

"I was thinking about the kids in Iraq," said one somber little girl. The professional was fast on his feet. "I know it is frightening," he replied. "But it is happening very far away."

It was almost as though he thought she should approach the war like a New Yorker. New York believes it is the center of the universe, and that the universe should be pleased and proud.

Some years ago Ken Auletta did a profile of Ed Koch for the New Yorker magazine, and in it he used an old joke about a Hollywood director talking to an underling: "Enough about me! Let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"

The allusion was perfect not only because it captured the character of New York's then-mayor but because it captured the citizenry as well.

Which is why today, while hundreds of thousands of soldiers and countless civilians are in danger of death in the Middle East, gas masks are selling like smoked salmon in Manhattan and certain New Yorkers will earnestly explain to you why their cooperative could be a prime target for terrorism.

Most of what has been written about kids has suggested that they are mainly concerned about themselves, about their personal safety, about assurances that there is no carpet bombing likely in their part of the world.

The children I've heard are better than that.

"Are there kids in Iraq?" my second grader asked me, a question that implied self-interest -- "If it could happen to them, it could happen to me" -- but contained a larger empathy as well.

Remember all those social studies lessons about children in other parts of the world, about how we are all members of the family of man? They've come home to roost. I think it would be natural if some of these kids felt duped. They were raised on the idea that hitting, even hitting back, was bad and unnecessary.

The source of all mainstream wisdom, Dr. Spock, has no listing under WAR in "Baby and Child Care." But in the revised edition I own, he has this to say: "The survival of the world now depends on a much greater awareness of the need to avoid war and to actively seek peaceful agreements."

There it is, right between "Helping a first child to be outgoing" and "Naughty words" -- a new world order. The challenge for some of us is to explain the dichotomy between the new world order at home and the old world order in the world.

It is, like most adult explanations, unsatisfactory, and consists mainly of reminding children of how complicated things are.

The 2-year-old demands a return to normalcy: "No news!"

The second grader has more sophisticated ideas. He believes inchess. He says it was invented for this very purpose, as an alternative to war. I have not had the heart to tell him that he is wrong about his premise, that some experts even say the opposite, that the game was invented to divert a king in the middle of a great military campaign.

Nor have I let him in on the fact that foreign affairs is not a board game. To explain the latter would require one of those discussions that inevitably degenerate into "You'll understand when you're older."

Translated that means "You'll get used to it."

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