How do you know what children really think about war and peace and terrorism?
In an effort to find out, a group of researchers followed a path less traveled. It listened to the children themselves.
Guess what? Even though some parents may go to great lengths to protect their children from knowing much about the evils out there, kids don't stay in the dark -- at least not for long. In this age of live communications from around the world, war and terrorism is as close as the TV dial, no matter where it occurs.
That struck home for Kathleen Walker a few days after fanatics brought terrorism to the heart of America on Sept. 11, 2001. Walker, then an art therapist, went to the fifth-grade class of a friend's son to talk to the children about what had happened.
Like most adults who found themselves in a similar situation, she soon learned that she didn't have all the answers. Walker recalled one child asking, "Would it be better to jump out of the building or stay?"
"I said I really couldn't answer that," she said. "You don't always know what you would do in different situations."
The right answer, if there is a right answer, would not have been nearly as important as just listening to the question, she adds.
"When adults talk about war and terrorism, they talk about it in terms of adult perspectives," she said. "My real interest is giving voice to children and adolescents."
Walker, now a professor of human development and family studies at Kent State University, joined with psychologist Maureen Blankemeyer, also of Kent State, and researchers at other institutions, including Purdue and Kansas State, to listen to the children. That took some of the researchers to Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Israel, and across the United States.
Their findings may not be particularly surprising, or even dramatic, but they are powerful when presented by the children themselves.
Here are the words of a 4-year-old boy:
"The terrorists were killing every body. They killed the pilots and crashed. They killed the pilots. The terrorists killed the pilots and crashed the planes. And it was a big tower. Lots of people died, everybody in the plane, not just the towers."
He was one of 60 children, ranging in age from 3 to 18, who participated in a study in Ohio two years after the attack. He was atypical in that most of the younger children, below the age of 6, knew little about what had happened on 9/11. More typical was a 4-year-old boy who stopped answering questions and said, "This is when I should be at home playing."
That isolation didn't last long. Twenty-two kids, 7 to 10 years old, were much more aware of what had happened than the younger children, not surprisingly. Said one 10-year-old girl:
"I think Osama bin Laden was the leader, and it was in New York, and it was on Sept. 11. And at school, we raised the flag half-mast. And thousands of people died."
A number of kids in that age group knew of bin Laden's role, but some, like many adults, thought Saddam Hussein was behind it.
But why would anybody inflict such damage on the United States?
"Because their country's, like, poor," answered an 8-year-old boy.
Eighteen adolescents, 11 to 18 years old, knew more details than the younger kids, even the types of planes used in the attacks, and precisely where they occurred, like this 11-year-old girl.
"I know it was an act of terrorism. It happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands were killed. It was a very sad day for our country. Our firefighters and police were killed."
And a 15-year-old boy said this:
"I know that men of different culture, different ideals, came to our country 'cause they thought that they knew our reputation of being greedy, of being mean people, and decided that they will stop us by killing thousands of innocent people that didn't deserve to die. And they did something that I am not even sure they believed themselves. They were just told that they should believe. The leading man, Osama bin Laden, who said that this is worth dying for, wouldn't even put his own life at risk."
Interestingly, the children did not associate terrorism with any particular religion, or race, Walker says. None made references to prayer, God, or religious institutions when asked about Sept. 11.
"We asked the kids what a terrorist looks like," Walker said. "Generally speaking, they said a terrorist can look like anyone."
The children learned about the attack in two different ways. The younger kids learned mostly from their parents. The older kids learned mostly from TV. In a number of cases, the older adolescents watched the events unfold on television while still at school.
Walker says the lesson in that is parents can't shield their kids from disturbing news. They are going to find out anyway.
"We should not pretend that they don't know what's going on, even very young children," she said. "In our effort to protect them, we can't keep them in the dark. We need to make sure they have some understanding, and give them the opportunity to express themselves."
The 60 children she studied in Ohio may not be typical. No effort was made to represent them as a microcosm of the nation as a whole, but their words are worth hearing. Here's a few more:
"I felt scared. I was only in the third grade and I thought maybe we were going to die, but I wasn't sure," a 10-year-old girl said.
"I felt odd that terrorism could be something so huge. And I guess that, you know, America's not invincible," a boy, 16, said.
"How could this happen? What did we do to have this happen," a 12-year-old boy said.
"I wish war would end," a 7-year-old girl said.
And this, from a 10-year-old boy:
"I forget why they did it. Our freedom, they are mad because we are free."