Home alone with his brothers, a 9-year-old Los Angeles boy heard the news on TV that war had broken out. Huddled in a closet, he called a Garden Grove hot line and cried, “What am I going to do? I’m too little to fight.”
Elsewhere since Jan. 16, a 5-year-old boy imagined Saddam Hussein as Darth Vader, an 8-year-old girl believed that Hussein would bomb her house, and a 3-year-old boy intrigued by pictures on TV told his mother, “I don’t have a gas mask.”
Imaginative and self-centered by nature, ignorant of world distances and saturated by the world’s first war breaking live and 24 hours a day in their living rooms, children may be the “silent victims” of the Persian Gulf War, experts say.
“There is no R-rating for the news,” lamented Santa Ana child psychologist Gary Ruelas, who has seen rising anxiety levels in his young patients. “Every time a siren goes off, there’s an announcement and it’s, ‘Omigod.’ ”
While PBS officials have adopted a policy of not breaking into children’s programming for news updates, networks often preempted daily preschool programming and broke into cartoons and sitcoms popular with children with news updates during the first week of the war.
Concerned about the effects of early war coverage on children--particularly at a time when the average child is watching television more than 25 hours a week, often unsupervised--psychologists and television producers are spreading advice to children and their parents on how to cope with war’s images and misconceptions.
Experts agree that parents and caretakers should monitor their children’s exposure to war coverage, discussing the issues behind the images, exploring fears and stressing that the child is safe.
They also suggest turning the news off when it becomes too intense--particularly for children under 5.
But in the event that parents do not, television and radio producers have rushed to produce a spate of special, war-related youth programs, ranging from puppet shows for preschoolers to sophisticated call-in shows for school-age children.
Some worry that the instant television advice may be too simple or shallow.
A week before war erupted, Jeff Gabel, head of children’s programming for the Public Broadcasting Service in Alexandria, Va., commissioned several public-service messages from Fred Rogers, host of the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that have aired nationwide over local television and radio stations.
One 60-second message contains an exchange between two puppets seen on the “Mister Rogers” show--Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII:
Dan: I don’t know why the people in Reality have to have a war.
King: . . .It’s because the people in Reality have always had wars, and that’s the way it has to be. . . . Dan: War can be a scary time for children.
King: Very well, I shall make a rule: All children shall be well taken care of in this neighborhood and beyond--in times of war and in times of peace. There. That should do it.
Dan: Just one more thing, please. If anybody’s scared, I’d just like you to know that you’ll always have somebody to love you no matter where you are.
“It’s disgraceful. It’s very superficial,” said Norma Feshbach, clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “That there are always wars. That there will always be somebody to love you. It’s making false promises and false statements. . . . It’s simple and underestimates the competence of the kids.”
While some television advice to involve parents is laudable, some, such as blanket suggestions to seek counseling, is “ridiculous,” she said.
In addition to addressing fear and anxiety, Feshbach said that one of the challenges for television is also to address the more delicate issues of morality. “It’s something people aren’t talking about. What are the kids learning about war and aggression and how wars get resolved.
“How are we patriotic on the one hand, and yet (explain) aggression is not always a good resolution to conflict? We teach young children that when somebody hits them, not to hit back. In a way, Hussein did something aggressive to Kuwait, and we’re responding with greater aggression. It’s a kind of moral dilemma.
“We have to be honest with (children), that it isn’t very clear. We’ll understand more later.”
KABC broadcast a children’s call-in show Thursday, and on Saturday ABC aired “War in the Gulf,” a 90-minute live national children’s call-in show in which children questioned Operation Desert Storm military personnel, anchorman Peter Jennings and news correspondents in the field.
PBS also distributed to its affiliates, “Kids Ask About War,” a 30-minute special in which 9- to 13-year-olds ask a panel of guest experts such unscripted questions as “Is (Saddam Hussein) going to poison our water?” and “Will there be many terrorist acts after the war or during the war?”
In the program, Doyle Larson, a retired U.S. Air Force general, tells the children: “The veterans of World War II felt it was a sign of weakness to even admit that you had these feelings (of uneasiness), so I think we’re making progress. . . .
“We live in the finest country in the world. You have to trust (that) your family, society and government will take care of you.”
A PBS brochure to help parents and teachers answer questions is also available.
Clearly, many children, even of preschool age, are confused by images of the Gulf War juxtaposed with cartoons and sitcoms, authorities say.
“I know one 3-year-old who said, ‘When the war is over, can we watch Road Runner?’ That indicates it’s seen as a TV program like any other,” said Ellen Galinsky, author of “The Preschool Years” and former president of the National Assn. of the Education of Young Children.
“Many adults are also upset that friends come over to watch the war as if it were a tennis match or a sporting event,” she said.
“It’s not clear to (children), sometimes they’re not told, that this is, in fact, really happening.”
Though some young children often tune out what they don’t understand, others become confused and terrified by the immediacy of the images, Feshbach said. Grade-school children, who use their imaginations to fill in the blanks, are the most anxious.
The most vulnerable children are most likely those of reservists who left quickly for Saudi Arabia without being able to prepare themselves or their families, she noted.
Misconceptions that fuel anxieties abound. The night war erupted, so did fierce Santa Ana winds in Orange County and thunderstorms on the East Coast. Many children on both coasts assumed the noises were from fighter planes. Parents and psychologists reported these examples:
* A 9-year-old girl in Irvine believed that Knott’s Berry Farm was going to be blown up.
* A 5-year-old New York boy thought his mother, a television producer, went to Saudi Arabia every day.
* After hearing about the possibility of chemical warfare in Israel, an 8-year-old girl from New York was convinced that the water in her house was poisoned.
Some teachers also are seeing more aggressive behavior in children.
Preschool children are playing “war” more often, more aggressively and with more stated prejudice against “brown people” at school, said Louise Derman-Sparks, professor of human development at Pacific Oaks College and Children’s School in Pasadena.
In addition, she said, “There is constant talk about people being bombed.”
One boy in elementary school was seen in a Costa Mesa grocery store wearing jungle fatigues, carrying a toy M-16 and wearing a sign on his back saying, “Saddam, Kiss My Ass.”
Some experts are concerned that the Nintendo nature of the Gulf War images with Scuds versus Patriots, nose-cone views of targets and Wild Weasles will desensitize young viewers to the real horrors of war.
But those images in themselves are considered less harmful to children than the pictures that are beginning to appear, such as prisoners being mistreated, civilian victims of air raids, scenes of violence and death, according to Rouell Huesmann, a psychology professor specializing in television research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, currently on sabbatical at UC Irvine.
It’s up to families to counter “that TV-video-game, go-for-the-miniseries mentality,” said Philadelphia-based clinical psychologist David Greenwald, author of “No Reason to Talk About It--Families Confront the Nuclear Taboo.”
“What families need to do is talk about what is behind the images that are coming on the TV and listen to children’s concerns about what some of this means,” he said.
Some psychologists said it is better to engender long-term hope by telling children that diplomats and others are trying to work out the conflict through talks.
Part of the new sensitivity to children stems from adults’ unmitigated childhood traumas from the Korean War or other crises.
“When we were kids, we didn’t have a chance to discuss it,” said Lisa Hazlewood, a health psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. “Parents thought we didn’t think about it and didn’t ask us. For adults, (talking to their own children) is a way of working through some of that trauma they experienced.”
But sensitivity can also be overdone. Experts cautioned that it is not necessary to continually take children’s emotional pulse.
“Children tend to want to process things in bits and pieces,” Hazlewood said. “If after a couple minutes, a child says, ‘What’s for dinner?’ that’s your cue that they’ve had enough discussion.”
Dan Wooldridge, an Orange County supervisor’s aide, thought he had explained it all to his son, Travis, 7. The boy knew the range of the Scud missile was the same distance as from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He knew the difference in time zones between here and Baghdad. He watched the Disney Channel and played Nintendo instead of watching programs interrupted by CNN.
And yet Tuesday, the child broke into tears and refused to budge after an old Volkswagen sparked and backfired in front of him. He looked at his father and asked, “Daddy, is the war coming?”
“Clearly,” Wooldridge said, “It’s a continuing process.”