Betsy Evans

So, What Is Peace?

by Betsy Evans, author of You Can’t Come to My Birthday Party! Conflict Resolution With Young Children

Photo by Laura Dwight

In this time of constant reports of car bombings, kidnappings, and other acts of violence and war, children are absorbing information and trying to construct their own idea of its meaning. Despite the efforts of even the most cautious parents, the extent of children’s knowledge is often disturbing. Children watch the adult world closely, as one can easily learn by joining their conversations at meals, snacks, or on the playground.

In my days as a teacher in the preschool classroom, one of my favorite daily events was snack time, partly because I share children’s love of graham crackers, carrot sticks, and bits of fruit, but mostly because of the conversation. Preschool children can discuss with equal passion what superheroes REALLY wear, how loud their dads snore, and where cats go when they die, all while munching crackers happily.

One day during snack the children’s conversation turned to words and their definitions. It began with the word war and what it meant. The children quickly offered definitions: “It’s when people kill each other.” “It’s a lot of fighting.” “It’s people shooting.” “People get dead in war.” There seemed to be considerable awareness of war and I became concerned to know if they understood the word peace as clearly. In anticipation of their possible responses, I took paper and a marker from a nearby shelf, and asked, “So what is peace?”

Three 4-year-old boys, Thad, Ryan, and Ezra, were very interested in the question. Their answers came slowly, thoughtfully, their inspiration extending from one boy to the next, as their ideas became a spontaneous poem. Although at first the boys’ words did not come as rapidly as the words that had defined war, as they talked they became more and more specific and increasingly pleased with their vision of peace. As they munched on carrot sticks, this is what they said:

Peace is not shooting.
Is quiet.
Is not killing anything.
Is not throwing litter.
Peace is eating healthy stuff.
Is being silly.
Is not breaking glass.
Is not walking in the house with muddy boots.
Peace is not stealing money.
Is not pulling somebody’s hair out.
Is giving someone a present.
Is giving someone something to eat if they are homeless.
Is playing peaceful and sharing toys and something real tasty.
Peace is playing outside together.

As they finished with the last contribution to the list, it reminded all of us that it was, in fact, time to go outside. I thought this was the end of the discussion so I hung up our extemporaneous peace poem by the table and we went out. As the boys were running to the playground, one of them shouted, “Let’s find a peaceful place!” They found a shallow dip in the yard, a little grassy crater that fit all three of them cozily. They lay on their backs in this little hollow, watching the clouds float by. “This is peace,” I heard one of them say.

As we endure the daily images and ongoing definitions of the horrors of war, let’s remember to find relief and energy as the children did, seeking new definitions for peace and fresh places to enjoy peaceful moments. Let’s do it because the children are watching.

Betsy is the author of You Can’t Come to My Birthday Party! Conflict Resolution With Young Children, HighScope Press, 2002. She grew up in Vermont and now lives in Gill, Massachusetts.