Recently my son asked about why the flags we were driving by were at half-mast. I had to explain to him that some people had recently died while serving in the armed forces.
He thought about this for a bit and asked if that would happen again. Sadly, I had to tell him it probably would.
I explained that he didn’t need to be scared because we would take care of him. I talked about how we needed to be grateful for the people who defended our country.
He had some more questions, too, but he seemed satisfied once the conversation was over.
Typed out, it sounds like I handled it well. I did my best, but I have to admit that I didn’t like it. Seriously, for my mama-heart, having that conversation sucked.
It is hard to watch a small bit of your child’s innocence crumble away.
When we are at a parade or an event and see veterans, I always tell my children that those are people who deserve our respect because they served our country. But I don’t really tell them why we respect them: that these people fought in wars for us.
I want my kids to know that men and women have sacrificed their lives to protect our country. I want to always speak reverently of anyone who has served in the armed forces. But a not-so-small part of me doesn’t want to tell them those things, because I don’t want my kids to know that people fight and kill each other. I don’t want my kids to know that as a country we have been at war for their whole lives.
It’s a delicate line to walk – a tightrope between protecting their innocence, and offering the truth.
We don’t have the news on when they are awake, so I’m able to shelter them from that. But what about in the books that we read?
I shelter my children from the news here, but I read The Chronicles of Narnia to them. Battles and war are common topics in literature. How should you tread when they come up in the books you read to your children?
5 Things to do When You Read a Battle Scene:
1. Make sure your children differentiate between the story and reality.
Very young kids can differentiate between stories and reality. They know that what is happening to characters in the book is not happening to them.
However, once you read a story they now know that the things happening in the story can happen, and that might lead to fears.
For example, in A True Home, the young mouse has lost her parents in a horrible way. Losing their parents might be something your children has never thought about until they hear this story. After hearing it, they may become scared it’s going to happen to them.
When reading aloud to young kids, discussing the differences between the story and reality is crucial. Make sure they are not concerned that these things you are reading about will happen to them.
It is crucial that you make sure your child understands that your family is safe. Reading about bad things can get some children imagining those bad things happening to them.
It can be easy to assume that your kids know that they are safe, because they know that what you are reading is just a story. However, don’t neglect the potential for them to be scared by a story.
Make sure you say multiple times that it is a story, and your family is safe. Kids need to hear this. Even if they don’t ask for it, they need this reassurance. Remind them they are safe with you.
2. Point out that violence has consequences.
Every battle or fight in a story has consequences. Even if the main characters, who we are rooting for, win, there is still a cost to the fight.
Sometimes the consequences are obvious, like when characters lose their life in a battle. Sometimes the consequences are more subtle, like a broken friendship or guilty conscience.
Point out to your kids that every fight has consequences. Even verbal confrontations have consequences.
The Detective Gordon Series does an excellent job at this. In the series, Detective Gordon, a wise and brave frog detective, frequently talks about why he doesn’t carry a weapon when he is doing his detective work: fighting leads to more trouble. He is the good guy in the story, but even if he rightly fought someone, it would have consequences. Detective Gordon cares so much for the animals in his forest that he gives up his right to carry a weapon.
Our little people need to know that all violence, even violence done by the good guys, has consequences. One of the worst messages they could get from a book is that fighting is “good.” To counteract that wrong message, bring their attention to the negative consequences of fighting.
3. Choose books with tame descriptions of battle.
I’m just going to give it to you straight: gore has no place in children’s literature. There is a difference between reading aloud to young kids about a fight and reading aloud to young kids about carnage. Our kids do not need those bloody descriptions in their head, their imaginations are already vivid enough.
Battle scenes can be exciting without going into the gross details. So, stay away from books that give detailed accounts of violence.
For example, The Chronicles of Narnia contains some very exciting battle scenes, but no gruesomeness. In contrast, we found that Poppy, although an excellent book, had to be “mom-censored” while I was reading it due to the detailed descriptions of little mice meeting their demise.
What is an appropriate description of a battle for your family is a personal decision. You should base it on what you are comfortable reading aloud to young children, and what your child is comfortable with.
This will be different for every child. It can also be difficult to anticipate what will scare our kids. One of your kids may not be fazed at all by a battle scene, but horrified by the thought of being stranded on a desert island.
Keep your child in mind as you read. If your child indicates that they are scared, stop reading aloud and talk about the story before you decide if you want to finish the book.
Also keep in mind that the way the story is told can affect how children respond to it. Age appropriate descriptions of fighting or crime in a book may be fine when you read the book aloud, but too scary when your kids listen to the same book on tape.
For example, in The Wind in the Willows there is a very tame battle with the rats and stoats. When we read it together, it is almost comical the way the stoats fall off the table and are vanquished.
However, in an audiobook version, there could be the added sound effects of swords clanking and rats yelling. The audiobook version of the same story may be too scary. Be mindful of how your children are reacting to any story, even if they have heard it before.
Please, do not kid yourself, thinking that your child is extra mature, so they can handle a more graphic description of violence.
No child is immune to feelings of fear or grief when exposed to descriptions that are not age appropriate. If you are reading along and realize that the battle descriptions are more than you were expecting, or your child is frightened, stop reading the book.
You can just conveniently return it to the library, or ask your kids to make up their own happy ending, or censor out a few paragraphs here and there.
Your kid’s innocence is worth protecting, even if it means sacrificing finishing the story.
4. Explain the difference between defense and offense.
“DEFEND THE WEAK!”
This is the only battle cry I allow when my kids are play-fighting.
One of my greatest joys as a parent is to see my preschool aged son pretending to be a knight with his stuffed lamb as his “‘quire.” (Pronouncing “s” is hard.) I love to see him jump on his stuffed animals and start throwing them around while yelling to his little sister, “They’ll never get you, Queen of the Fairies!! DEFEND THE WEAK!!!”
(In case you are wondering what roll I have when he plays this scenario, I am Lady Charlotte Mama, the queen’s ninja body guard. I also defend the weak.)
There is a difference between being a physically violent bully and using force to defend someone or something that cannot defend themselves.
Even very young children can grasp the concept when you explain it: there are good guys, and there are bad guys. The good guys use physical force only when they have to in order to protect someone weaker.
The title character in the series The Adventures of Captain Al Scabbard is the perfect example of how a good guy uses force to protect the innocent. I haven’t read the series to my five year old yet because it is a little too intense for very young kids, but for those a little older this classic series about a guy who is basically a Jesus-following version of Jason Bourne has a strong message of the importance of being strong to defend the weak.
Make sure you talk about this with your children, because knowing the distinction between defending and attacking will serve them well for their whole lives.
While the world glorifies strength and the victor, we want to glorify the person who quietly uses their strength to seek justice for the widow, orphan, and weak.
5. Leave time to discuss what you are reading.
It can be tempting to breeze through tough concepts when you are reading aloud to young kids. It is hard to talk about it when a beloved character dies or there is a battle and they are injured.
However, do not think that brushing these things under the rug is the best way to handle these things when they come up in the book. Instead, slow down your reading and check in with your child.
Ask questions to see if your child understood what happened in the scene. If they didn’t understand that someone died or there was a battle, there is no reason to explain it to them.
For example, in The Magician’s Nephew the evil queen talks about a great battle where she killed her sister. Her description of it went completely over my preschooler’s head, and he had no idea she was talking about killing people. So, I didn’t explain it to him. There’s no need to harp on the gruesomeness of a war.
However, if your child has questions about what you read, leave time to address those. Anything complex they are struggling with, simplify it for them. Then, move on.
Be honest, but do not linger on the point if they do not have more questions. By trying to anticipate what you think they will ask, you may unknowingly introduce things that they did not pick up in the story. This can lead to unnecessary fears.
The best thing to ask your children is, “What questions do you have about this page before we keep reading?”
Just because a read aloud book has a battle in it doesn’t automatically mean we shouldn’t read that story to our young kids.
A fight in a read aloud book shouldn’t disqualify it from a place on our shelves. However, it does merit close attention! Be prepared for some discussion when you come to those sections when you are reading aloud to young children.
Using these five tips, you are now well equipped to handle any book-battles you may come across while reading aloud to young children!