Ways to help you talk to little kids about Ukraine

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Fred Rogers

Keener came home a few months ago from school saying, “Molly said that there is a drink that you can drink that keeps you from ever going to heaven.” Since my dad has died, we are no strangers to the topics of death and heaven. This launched into a fabulous discussion about both of those topics — and about not believing everything you hear.

Learning from this experience, and for other reasons, I decided I wanted to be the one to tell my four and five year old kids about what is happening in Ukraine. Although I wasn’t sure initially what to say, I didn’t let that stop me. Thankfully, I found the following article from PBS titled, “How to Talk to Kids About the Ukraine Invasion.” It provided me with all I needed to dive into such a big, scary, and uncomfortable topic. Death, cancer, accidents, race — all of these topics can feel incredibly tempting to avoid. However, when I think about who I want teaching my kids about these subjects, I want it to be me, not 5 year old Molly and her magical potions.

I wanted to highlight from the article and from our discussions what has been the most helpful.

Books

I bought the books mentioned in the article above. They are wonderful and we have found ourselves rereading and discussing them daily. The most general book is, What is a Refugee? This book uses simple yet factual language to explain that a refugee is a person who had to leave their country because they were in danger. We’ve talked about the word flee, we’ve discussed what it must feel like to only bring one bag, and how scary it must feel to not know where you are going. The news said over half of the 3 million refugees who have left Ukraine are children. I want my children knowing that and developing awareness, empathy and compassion.

Another book is called Lubna and Pebble. This book is everything. Lubna flees with her dad and develops a friendship with a pebble who is her best friend. Then another child arrives named Amir. Lubna and Amir become friends until it is time for Lubna to leave. Inevitably, Amir is feeling sad and lonely. You can guess what Lubna decides to do with her beloved pebble.

If this doesn’t teach about everything that matters in life, I’m not sure what does. Family, friendship, belonging, selflessness, compassion — so much goodness in one story.

We have also read the third recommended book, Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey. What I love most about this book is it highlights the helpers, a major focus of what I talk about with my kids. A refugee family flees with their cat, who gets lost, and is then reconnected. It highlights that even during scary, uncertain and dangerous times, there are always helpers.

Focus on the Helpers

This is major for young kids. We always talk about the helpers when we are talking about difficult topics. Doctors, police officers, nurses, volunteers, pastors, scientists, firefighters, soldiers — the list goes on and on. Another beautiful quote pulled from the article, The Fetishization of Mr. Rogers’s ‘Look for the Helpers’ from The Atlantic in 2018:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Fred Rogers via The Atlantic

He is absolutely right. Even during the most devastating of times, there are always people who are there to help. Again, this highlights for our young kids how amazing people can be and the importance of thinking about other people. We have had wonderful conversations about the helpers during the current crisis in Ukraine and I can tell this helps remind my kids they are safe.

Reassure Safety

I think one of the main reasons we shy away from talking about a topic such as the war happening in Ukraine is because we are scared it might scare our kids. And it might. This is why it is important to keep the conversation age appropriate, follow their lead, and focus on the helpers. Consider also, that it might actually make them feel less scared. The quote above says,

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Fred Rogers

Therefore talking about what the people in Ukraine are going through may actually make our kids feel less upset and less scared as it becomes more manageable. I can’t control what other people are going to tell my kids about the Ukraine invasion. For all I know, Molly has invented a new anti-war potion. I want my kids to know that they can talk to me about anything and that I am not going to avoid uncomfortable topics. They can trust that I will be honest with them, answer any questions they may have, and help them navigate how they are feeling.

Where to start?

This is also a good reminder that asking your children what they might have heard about what is happening in Ukraine may be the best place to start. Maybe they haven’t heard anything, in which case you get to be the one to share as much or as little as you are comfortable and as they are interested. Or maybe they will surprise you and tell you something they have heard on TV, from friends, or other news sources. Either way, this would be a great way to get the conversation going. If they have no idea, it could be as simple as, Unfortunately, there is a war going on there because the leader of Russia is trying to take something that isn’t his. This is causing people in Ukraine to feel unsafe and many are leaving to keep their families safe.

This may be enough! Depending on how old your kids are, they very likely may be more interested in getting Goldfish for a snack than learning more about this global crisis. However, the door is opened. After getting the Goldfish, you might close out the conversation with, You are safe and our family is safe. If you want to talk about what is happening in Ukraine later, I’m always here to talk about this or anything else that is on your mind.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a quote from the PBS article that has resonated with me the most:

Our job is to provide our kids with accurate, age-appropriate information, while reminding them that they are safe and they are loved.

Deborah Farmer Kris

3 comments

  1. Jenny, This is brilliant and so timely. Thank you for your clear explanation, description of appropriate books to help children understand and scripting of the kinds of simple conversations to get discussion started. I found your whole post incredibly helpful.

  2. Thank you. Uncomfortable but necessary conversations is such an important topic for any age group. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the Burt Bacharach song, “Be Aware.”

    When the sun is warm where you are
    And it’s comfortable and safe where you are
    Well it’s not exactly that way, all over

    And somewhere in the world
    Someone is cold, be aware
    And while you’re feeling young
    Someone is old, be aware

    And while your stomach’s full
    Somewhere in this world
    Someone is hungry
    When there is so much, should anyone be hungry?

    When there’s laughter all around me
    And my family and friends surround me
    If I seem to be forgetful, remind me

    That somewhere in the world
    People are weak, be aware
    And while you speak your mind
    Others can’t speak, be aware

    And while your children sleep
    Somewhere in this world
    A child is homeless
    When there is so much, should any child be homeless?

    Oh no, not even one child… be aware

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