PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- I was eating breakfast with my 6-year-old son, Henry, the other morning and he brought up today's celebration at his school: Flag Day.
"What am I supposed to do?" he asked.
I looked at the flier on the bulletin board: Wear red, white and blue.
"Wear red, white and blue," I said.
"The colors of the flag," he said.
He shoved a spoonful of Cheerios into his mouth. I could tell he was about to say something important, maybe something he had learned in school.
"Flag Day is to honor the flag," he said.
"Right," I said, pleased he got the point.
"And to honor the war," he said.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of that comment. I'm opposed to the war in Iraq but stand by the troops over there. Maybe my son was saying the same thing in his kid way. His next comment stunned me: "We want to win!" He turned his index finger and thumb into the shape of a gun and pointed to the wall: "Boom!"
It was time for a sit-down.
I've been talking to Henry and his 7-year-old brother, Peder, about the Iraq war for years. That's right, since they were toddlers. They would peek over my shoulder as I watched the nightly news reports and pepper me with questions I tried to answer truthfully: Why are buildings on fire? We dropped bombs. Who's driving the tanks? American soldiers. What's wrong with him? He's dead.
Sometimes the boys, riveted to the screen, would make it all the way through a report; other times they would lose interest, as kids do, and rush out of the room to play with their Legos.
It never occurred to me to do what most parents do: Keep the war out of the house. My sister has a friend who rips out all the war photos in her New York Times (from the dead soldiers to the rolling tanks) so her daughters won't see them. I know a parent who never listens to National Public Radio because she's concerned her first-grader might hear the crack of an AK-47. Remember the Newsweek cover photo of an American soldier whose legs were blown off by a roadside bomb? A neighbor turned the magazine over when his son came to play.
I don't understand parents who want to keep the war a secret, like a shameful family scandal. Are they afraid of nightmares and nail-biting? I bet a Scooby-Doo movie is scarier than an NBC report about Iraq. My guess is parents are worried about getting too many questions they can't answer. Their coddling wears me down and gets me down. It's the easy way out.
I'll never forget the newspaper photo I saw last month of Iraqi men pulling a body from the Euphrates River that was later identified as Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., only 20, one of three missing soldiers who had been the focus of a massive military manhunt. A boy not much taller than Henry was standing on the riverbank, hands on hips, watching. The parents who threw that photo in the trash - what were they thinking? Iraqi boys can see this, but not their children?
I try to be honest and open with my kids about Iraq and the rest of the world. I know they can handle it, as long as I'm there to listen and to answer questions whenever they come, even at teeth-brushing time. If I kept the war a secret, my kids would eventually figure it out and question my deceptiveness. I think it's important to be straightforward, even when the facts are unpleasant.
Of course, the downside of exposing kids to the war is that they can glorify it in a shoot-'em-up-cowboy way, as Henry did that morning at breakfast. That's the first time he has talked about the war in terms of "winning." It's also the first time he has played a gun-toting good (or bad?) guy. But those are the risks I take by leaving the TV on and the newspaper intact on the kitchen table. Anyway, at those times, I step in and do something novel: Talk to my kids about the war.
After unloading his make-believe gun, I told Henry that killing people is bad, even imaginary people on the kitchen wall.
"Who started Iraq?" he asked.
"The United States," I said.
"How come?" he said.
"I'm not sure I know why," I said.
I told him I wanted the war to end and the American soldiers to come home. And then I said what I always say when I'm trying to get my kids to pay attention: "Look at me." He fixed his eyes on mine. "The people in Iraq are not bad," I said. "Boys like you live there."
"How big?" he said.
"Six," I said. "Just like you."
"If they put the white flag up, does that mean you can't fight anymore?" he said.
"Yeah," I said.
"So why don't we put the white flag up?" he said.
I didn't know what to tell him: Our president doesn't want to; people are afraid of losing; life isn't fair.
Henry made sense. Kids have a knack for thinking clearly.
"Maybe we'll put it up someday," I said.
He finished his cereal and wiped his mouth with the collar of his Red Sox T-shirt. "I don't want to talk about this anymore, Mom," he said.
That was OK with me; there would be other days. My son grabbed his backpack and rushed out the door to school.
Elizabeth Rau is a freelance writer. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.