Children too young for full reality of war

5.20am Monday morning – will you see me at the Dawn Service to commemorate Anzac Day?

My children, six and four, have been learning about Anzac Day and it’s the first year they’ve asked to go.  They’re still too young to comprehend war, even though they love to play fight, shoot imaginary guns and swing invisible samurai swords around their heads.

I’ve struggled with the glorification of war in my sons’ pretend games – I don’t see it as a necessary rite of passage, but it does seem hard to avoid.  One of our family anecdotes involves my cousin who wasn’t given toys guns as a child, but still made them out of sticks and in his late teens ended up joining the army – the approach of denying war toys didn’t stop him.

We don’t often watch the TV news at home so I don’t have a lot of explaining to do when something difficult comes on – they are too young to be exposed to the horrors of conflict just yet.  Unfortunately, there are children around the world who can’t avoid the reality of war because their families are in the midst of it.  My heart breaks for those young people whose lives are torn apart and their childhoods lost.

Some get a second chance though and this week I learnt a little more about one supportive community a Syrian refugee family has had the good fortune to connect with.  The Common Unity Project Aotearoa is a community-based, urban farm project that grows food, skills and leadership with local families in Lower Hutt.  I donated a little money for the dad, a former market gardener in Syria, to purchase compost to get a garden growing at his new home – it felt good to be part of that family’s welcoming committee, even at a distance.

We’re off to Wellington next month for a weekend and I’m unsure whether I’ll take the boys to Te Papa to see the Gallipoli exhibition.  I don’t want my children to grow up sheltered but it wouldn’t be right to introduce them to graphic scenes of real war at their ages.  However, I do want to help them understand that war is not a simple game of “goodies” and “baddies”.  How do I explain that the Turkish soldiers were defending their own country against the Australian and New Zealand forces – that the ANZACs were the invaders?

My parents reminded me that my great great uncle Graham landed at Anzac Cove, survived, and was then shipped out to Passchendaele, and again, somehow against the odds, survived.  They said when packing up his house after he died at the age of 94, they found his notebook from the war, along with war medals he had hidden away out of sight.  The notebook contained a list of all his comrades’ names, with many many names crossed out and dated as they died around him – it must have been all but unbearable.

Graham never married and led a very quiet life, living next to my grandparents in New Plymouth, buying my sister and me book tokens every Christmas. 

For a differently devastating reflection on the impacts of World War One back home, look up Whanganui columnist Rachel Stewart’s powerful piece entitled “War is hell, here's my family's story”. 

If I can manage voluntariliy getting my children and myself up at 5am on Monday, I will be at the Dawn Service – wearing both a red poppy and a white poppy for peace.

Lastly, I got something wrong in my column of 2 April.  I assumed that when only two of the 12 Horizons regional councillors voted for a swimmable, not wadeable, water standard in the current national consultation round, that meant the other 10 voted against it, including our two local reps.  My apologies – David Cotton was not at that meeting so did not vote.