Children at War: Play and Parents

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You can learn a great deal about children at the Museum of Childhood. You can also spend quite a bit of time being a child, as even my college students enjoyed playing with blocks and sand and visiting favorite childhood toys (Barbie, obviously, but also Care Bear, Pound Puppy, and others without the brand names). The play all has a point though, as there were several gems from World War II – including the pictured construction set, which reportedly came with instructions for building an air raid shelter and other wartime projects. This kind of play may have been surprisingly important factor in helping children cope with the war, giving them a sense of control over their world and letting them create stories around the events of the war.

The fact that war comes with special toys (toy soldiers and wind-up tanks also featured prominently) may be one of the reasons that children understand war more easily than they understand peace. There are connections to smaller “wars”, after all, which stand out more than peace; you know when someone in the family is having a quarrel, but tend not to think about it when everyone’s getting along. War also comes with clear, concrete symbols: soldiers, guns, tanks, all the uniforms and armaments of war-making, while peace has nothing so tangible. (The peace symbol and white doves are artificial, cultural connections that wouldn’t help young children very much). The concrete ideas of soldiers and weapons are fairly easy for young children to grasp; these are, after all, the same children who think that clay rolled out in a snake is bigger than clay rolled in a ball, because it’s longer. To understand peace, children will try to find concrete symbols to make sense of things:

Gesa Harchmann, a child at the time, recalled a conversation with her mother: “One time I asked my mother, ‘what is peace?’ ‘When people like each other again’, she said. ‘And could we,’ I asked, ‘could we go to the grocer and say “I’d like two eggs please”? ‘No,’ my mother answered, ‘in peacetime you can ask for seven or eight eggs, or one for however many of us there are.’ ‘And butter,’ I asked, ‘could we buy a whole half-pound of butter?’ And my mother said, ‘You could buy two pounds of butter, or as much butter as you like.’ And I said, ‘So peace is when I can spread butter on both sides of a slice of bread.'” (Hughes & Mann, Inside Hitler’s Germany).

Separate from the toys, though, children’s experience in the Blitz – specifically, the fact that approximately half the children of London were evacuated to the countryside and other countries, while the other half remained behind. The authorities expected the evacuees to thrive in a bomb-free environment with fresh air away from the crowded city streets, but (despite both groups getting the same rations) the blitzed London children outgrew them. The children who stayed behind may have faced bonds, but they did it with the emotional support of family, and their emotional environment turned out to matter as much or more as their physical one. This observation would later lead John Bowlby to his work with children in orphanages and ultimately to attachment theory, and our understanding that children’s emotional lives are crucial to their development.

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