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White Poppies and Teaching Children about War and Militarism

At Purley meeting for worship the children's group made some white poppies and attached some messages to them. These were going to be added to poppies developed at other meetings and displayed outside the current arms exhibition in London. When the children showed us their poppies and the messages they had attached to them Some interesting questions popped up.

One of the children (aged about 6) had written a message concerning the death by shooting of a young mexican boy ... and the discussion that followed raised some interesting points. The suggestion was made that through its symbolism, and the act of making one, the white poppy conveyed a sense of a certain power, namely, the power to ask questions and to think about the consequences of war and violence. At the same time concerns were raised about the extent and ways of telling young children - say pre-school and infant school children about death and war and cruelty, without traumatising them.

I have started digging around looking for suitable books and DVDs ... and am making some progress .. However I would love to hear something about your take on this subject, or any books that you have found particularly helpful. One book (or rather DVD) that popped into my mind was "Goodnight Mr. Tom" which I really like. However I wonder whether it would be suitable viewing for say a 4 year old or a 6 year old. Then there are the various psychological and anthropological observations of children in playgrounds and playgroups, some of them not easy reading. I have thoughts and ideas that I am gradually trying to develop, including some approaches taken from O'Sensei's development of Aikido. Your feedback and ideas would be most appreciated. You can send an email to andrew dot eliasz at gmail dot com.

I received some very helpful responses, excerpts of which I present below.

A few thoughts on your 'white poppies' email. I think this is quite a difficult topic to raise with a mixed group of children, such as you get at a Quaker meeting. You really need to know how much exposure each individual child has had to the various aspects of warfare, which are mainly deeply unpleasant. From my own experience of children I don't think I would embark on this topic to any depth before the age of six. Prior to this age, if asked by a young child what war means, I think it can be simply explained as 'a lot of people getting very, very cross with each other'. No need to go into any more details unless the child is persistent in its questioning.

Unfortunately violence is so often depicted in the Media today. Pick up any newspaper, listen to any news bulletin - and there it is. Both Primary and secondary schoolchildren can be seen reading the Metro on their way to school every morning - especially as the Metro is now available on buses. Violence is often contained in productions such as Star Wars and many video games have an element of violence within them. I am not sure what impact or influence this will have on children as they develop into adulthood, but there is little doubt that it has a presence in their lives.

I find Remembrance Days quite contentious. I can remember my grandparents, who had lived through both world wars, saying that they believed remembrance days should be kept within families and close friends, because public recognition of it stirred up too many old wounds which could lead all too swiftly to hatred. They felt we needed to move on with our lives and forgiveness should be from, and to, all nations. No country is guiltless in war.

I digress! I think children should have an expectation of peace in the world, it is their right. To quote Gandhi, ' If we are to reach real peace in the world we shall have to begin with the children'. They should be made aware (probably from the age of nine years) that the building up of arms in any country and the selling of arms to any country is inevitably going to reduce the possibility of a peaceful world. I think they should have it very clearly in their minds that peace, and negations leading to peaceful outcomes, is the way forward. I would definitely support the sale of the white poppies, but children should be very aware of why these are being chosen.

Books - I would recommend

1. Where The Poppies Now Grow by Hilary Robinson suitable for children from 6 years onwards. This is set in WW1 and features two little boys, Ben and Ray, who are friends, and it watches their development into young men who are fighting for their country. It is beautifully illustrated, on every page, by Martin Impey - so it will hold the interest of younger children. If you have no other book - get this one!

2. War Boy by Michael Foreman, probably suitable for 10 years onwards. This is about the author's childhood - growing up near Lowestoft in WW2. He talks of the everyday experiences of that time, such as bombings, bomb shelters, gas masks, air raids, drills at school - and so on. Excellent water coloured pictures that bring it all to life.

3. What does Peace feel like by Vladimir Radunsky. For age group 3 years and older. Simple text and illustrations that would appeal, and be understood, by very young children. Opens up lots of areas for further discussion.

The following response from a very experienced primary school teacher and a quaker the last part of which was very moving.

In the schools I worked in I wore a white poppy. In the last couple some children did too. Red poppies are routinely sold to children from four up. They take part in Remembrance Day assemblies. I have always explained that the red poppies are to remember those in the armed services who were killed or injured in wars (and their families) and the White poppies support civilians effected by war and peace work. I have found children vary greatly in their ability to engage with this topic irrespective of age so letting them take the lead seems wise. At BYMG (British Yearly Meeting Gathering) this year (2017) we did a 'Teddy Bear's Picnic for refugee families. It was very clear when talking to families that some very young children had experienced war first hand.

Also this contribution, which shows how insightful gentle youngsters can be

I can remember a day when my older two children were quite little (probably around 4) when one of them asked me 'Mum, are soldiers real?'. It was sad to have to tell him they were.

Scribendor would also like to a book by Sarah Garland. This little snippet from a Guardian interviewin 2007 conveys the kind of person she is. She is most definitely "my kind of person". Here follows the snippet

".. Sarah Garland's books could not find a French publisher because her mothers were judged insufficiently chic. What French madame would be seen in a shapeless green duffel coat, pushing a buggy uphill, with the baby's bottle (lid off) peeping out of her pocket? Garland is one of the best and most sympathetic chroniclers of English family life precisely because her pencil doesn't lie about the slog of bringing up children. She has a loving, unsentimental eye. She can be festive but is never false. I have always been profoundly grateful to her for drawing a mother I can relate to - as have millions of others who adore her work. .."

One of her books within the theme of this particular scribend that you or your children may get much from is

"Azzi in Between", which describes the life of a refugee coming to terms with life in a new country. Azzi and her parents have to leave their home and escape to another country on a frightening journey by car and boat. In the new country they must learn to speak a new language, find a new home and Azzi must start a new school. With a kind helper at the school, Azzi begins to learn English and understand that she is not the only one who has had to flee her home. She makes a new friend, and with courage and resourcefulness, begins to adapt to her new life. But Grandma has been left behind and Azzi misses her more than anything. Will Azzi ever see her grandma again?

More on Sarah Garland's books in another Scribend ... or maybe you might care to contribute an appreciation of Sarah's work or an Scribend on her work that we could include in our collection of Scribends ?

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