How children can be hurt by war—even when there isn’t one
How children can be hurt by war—even when there isn’t one
THE CUBAN CRISIS is still a major topic of conversation in the United States. Right-wingers like Senator Barry Goldwater are boasting that Nikita Khrushchov's removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba vindicates the “get tough" policy they have advocated all along. Americans who deplore brinkmanship, on the other hand, contend that Kennedy without adequate justification jeopardized the whole human race.
Practical politicians in the Republican Party arc rationalizing the inferior Republican showing in the mid-term elections by saying they were “Cubanized.” The Democrats tend to minimize the impact of Kennedy’s Cuban stand on the voting but don’t attempt to deny that it was a factor. One dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, given to soul-searching, told me he’d feel better about the Cuban showdown “if the timing had been different” and it hadn’t so closely preceded election day.
A pacifist 1 talked with said bitterly that he hoped that stretching international tension to the breaking point would not become an established ploy in political campaigns. But pacifists are relatively few and Americans who think their country has scored heavily against the communists and should follow up its initial success are many. What happened in Cuba has. indeed, put a lot of Americans in a mood almost of carnival.
But if the strain of the showdown has apparently left adults unharmed, has it been equally harmless to children? Or did it add immeasurably to the fears and worries that the development of nuclear weapons has already sown in the young and that may, in years ahead, produce an unparalleled crop of neurotics?
The answer is one that mental health authorities arc seriously concerned about. Lately.
parents have been bringing psychiatrists more and more children who, having heard of the mysterious poison called fallout, are terrified of rain, snow' and milk. While statistics are impossible to get. there have been reports of children committing or trying to commit suicide. There are teachers who are convinced that there is a spreading attitude among pupils that there isn’t much sense studying, since they’ll be vaporized by bombs before they grow up.
AN OPEN LETTER TO PARENTS
What do you tell kids like that? The Child Study Association of America, a highly respected organization founded in 1888, and the National Institute of Mental Health, have done their best to provide useful clues by publishing a booklet, Children and the threat of nuclear war. This was written by a noted child psychologist, Dr. Sibylle Escalona, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and has an introduction by the executive director of the Child Study Association, A. D. Buchmueller. He states: “To parents and all who are concerned with the young, the situation poses specific and immediate problems. In an emergency, every instinct tells us to protect the young. This means much more than protection against final disaster. It means protecting children from fear and anxiety, and from confusion and distrust.”
Dr. Escalona advises parents to reassure preschoolers of their love and protection: “No matter what a preschooler’s fear is about on the surface, his real fear is that he may be hurt or lose the protective closeness of his parents.” She says that explanations to the young child who asks about fallout or bombs should be brief and undetailed: “In essence he w'ants to feel that his parents know all about the problem and will take care of him.” She adds that it is a good idea to protect the young from too much talk about nuclear danger. “One way parents can help their children is to make it clear that they believe that nations must settle their quarrels peacefully. In general, parents teach children to control their anger, to avoid destruction, and to respect the rights of others. Even a preschooler will sense a ‘double-standard’ if we teach one idea for family living and another for life among nations.”
According to Dr. Escalona, children aged six to twelve commonly ask: “Will there be a war? What would happen?” and “If it happens when I’m at school, where will you be?” and “Don’t you love me enough to build a shelter?" She says children in this age group draw strength from an adult who does not shrink from questions and communicates the feeling that human life and values are worth working for. Something “you must not talk about” is felt by the child to be bad and frightening.
“WHY CAN'T WE HAVE A SHELTER, TOO?"
When the shelter question arises, as it often does, it may be difficult to handle. A child’s parents may be opposed to shelters, on the grounds that they are utterly useless and create a false sense of security that brings nuclear war closer. But the parents of the child next door may have invested in a shelter to protect their “loved ones,” as the child with the shelter may inform the child without one.
Children from twelve to eighteen, says Dr. Escalona, ask what they have to look forward to, and whether their own children will be freaks, and are apt to respond to their own questions by saying, “I’ll enjoy myself while I can” or, “What the hell, I might as well live it up.” Likewise, they are inclined to reject adult counseling by saying, in effect: “How? can you tell us what to do? You are the ones who made the w'orld what it is.”
Such are some of the gnawing fears, the worried questions and the let’s-be-gay-whilew'e-may attitudes of America’s small fry, medium-sized fry and teenagers. So what do you tell them? Dr. Sibylle Escalona is a wise and kindly woman, a foremost expert in her field. But even she is obviously puzzled. Her shrewdest statement, perhaps, is the final sentence in her booklet: “Helping children to help themselves may require of us that we come to terms with broader social issues.”
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