April 24, 2003
By Kristen Fox / SUN staff writer
As a second grade teacher at St. Matthew’s School in East Syracuse, Mary Wyatt is used to being asked tough questions by her students. But the ones asked of her lately are a little more serious than “Why is the sky blue?” Now, students are probing her about the war with Iraq; and their questions aren’t ones that can be easily answered. “Students have been wanting to know things like ‘Why is the war happening?’ and ‘Can’t the countries talk out their problems?’ For them, living in the midst of war is the reality they are growing up in. And I can’t tell them why,” said Wyatt. During this time of uncertainty, the fear and apprehension many children are experiencing is justified. With graphic pictures of wounded civilians and soldiers covering television screens and constant talk about war casualties and terrorist threats at home, it can be difficult for youngsters to distinguish between fact and fiction. Students throughout the diocese, though, have managed to find ways of channeling their anxiety into something positive. Many children have been working diligently to make care packages to send to troops, and create letters and cards to show their support for those overseas.
“They want to feel that they can do something to help,” said Wyatt, whose class recently sent letters to soldiers in Iraq. “These kids are so eager to let the soldiers know that they support them and that they are thinking of them –– even in the most simple ways.” Stephen Brewster, a student in Wyatt’s class, wrote to the soldiers. Beginning his letter “Dear Friend,” one would never know that he was writing to a faceless, nameless soldier. As they are for many, to Stephen, these men and women fighting overseas are both friends and heroes.
“Thank you for serving our country,” continued Stephen’s letter to the unknown soldier. “We are praying for you. You are my hero and I hope you come home safely.” A short letter with a big message. The 16 other letters written from Wyatt’s students demonstrate the special place these children have in their hearts for the admired soldiers. And they have not only remembered soldiers with their actions, but in their thoughts and prayers as well. Each morning, Wyatt’s class gathers in a prayer circle and prays for a speedy end to the conflict and a safe return for soldiers everywhere.
In troubling times, this moment of prayer is very important for the children, noted Wyatt. She emphasizes to her class the need to come together and and pray for world peace. Although there is a war, Wyatt explains to students that fighting is never the first thing to do when there are disagreements and that the decision to go to war was a very serious and difficult one. “As they see our country in a war, they might get the impression that fighting is the way to solve differences, but a peaceful resolution is always the best thing,” said Wyatt.
The fifth, sixth and seventh grade religious education classes at St. Stephen’s Church in Phoenix have also gotten involved in the cause. [They have even given named their letter-writing campaign to soldiers “St. Stephen’s Children of Prayer.”] For the past month, they have taken time out of their religious education classes to write to the military in Iraq. Laurie Mogilewski, director of religious education at St. Stephen’s, believes that the letters give the students an outlet to express their feelings. “Activities like this aren’t really a matter of pro-war or anti-war, but are a chance for kids to write to a soldier and say, ‘I think that you are doing a great job,’’” said Mogilewski.
Stephanie Corey, a sixth-grade religious education student at St. Stephen’s, wrote the soldiers that she is grateful for them going to Iraq and fighting for freedom. She said that she is eagerly awaiting a response. “It was fun writing to the soldiers. I hope that they get our letters and write us back real soon,” saihid Stephanie. Wyatt said that she has been surprised by the extensive knowledge that the students have of the war. While she doesn’t get into the details of the war with students, she noticed that they come into the classroom with a good idea of what’s happening. The day that Prisoner of War Jessica Lynch was rescued, the students thanked God for her safe return, she added.
“It is phenomenal to listen to these children talk about world events. They know so much and have a real grasp on what is happening,” said Wyatt. “They are very observant and pick up on what is happening around them.” Wyatt said that the knowledge students have of current events most likely comes from parents who are having discussions with their children about the war. It is important for adults to help children cope with war by talking, listening to them and answering questions they may have, she said.
Mark Moitoza, the author of A Pastoral Guide for Those Working With Youth, serves as the military project coordinator for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and works with military youth and families at U.S. Army installations in Germany. In addition to forming a new presence of mind, Moitoza believes that discussion with children will create an opportunity for honest and open talk about their feelings on the war. While some parents might think that addressing issues of war with children will stir up fear, he thinks that discussion will allow youth to voice their feelings in a world where their opinions might be undervalued and unappreciated. “Discussion allows young people to vent what they are thinking and offers them a chance to be heard. A small-group setting can provide an appropriate atmosphere for youth to share what they think and feel about the conflict with Iraq,” Moitoza said.
During discussion, initial responses from youth may include a reluctance to share. Patience, compassion, and encouragement on behalf of parents will help break through these barriers, Moitoza said. He recommends allowing youth to share what they really think without criticizing them or telling them that everything is going to be okay. What is needed is a ministry of presence, a ministry of listening, and an invitation to pray and learn more about what the Catholic Church teaches about war and peace, he added. Moitoza recommends that adults keep in mind the following principles while facilitating a discussion: • Create a safe and caring environment to honestly share thoughts and feelings. • Be compassionate. • Listen well. Do not pretend to know all the answers to their concerns. • Allow for disagreements and different points of view in your discussions. • Encourage youth to allow others to have different opinions. Laura Drake, a parishioner of St. Christopher’s Church in Binghamton, said that she and her husband encourage dialogue about the war with her seven-year-old son and teenage daughter. “My husband and I try to encourage our children to come to us with any questions or feelings they have about the war. Sometimes what they see or hear on the news might be confusing so we really want them to come to us when something is on their minds,” Drake said. Drake said that although it is frustrating not being able to protect her children from a frightening environment, she will continue to reassure them daily that they will be safe.
“You can’t keep your children in a bubble,” she said. “You can teach them strong values, pray with them and communicate.” For more information on how to talk to youth about war and for the remainder of Moitoza’s tips, visit http://www.smp.org/