Conversations On Conflict

How and Why We Should Listen To Young People’s Voices on Conflict 

Nik Perring | Never Such Innocence | Visualising War and Peace

Nik Perring is an author, screenwriter, and educator/facilitator of twenty years, who has worked extensively with:
Never Such Innocence who provide tools for children and young people (9-18) to reflect on the realities of war and conflict. They are nurturing the next generation of thinkers, leaders and peacebuilders through the arts, inspiring cultural exchange and dialogue, and amplifying the voices of children and young people all over the world.
Visualising War And Peacewho explore how war and peace get presented in art, text, film and music, and who study the ‘feedback loop’ between narrative and reality: how the tales we tell and the pictures we paint shape how we think, feel, make decisions and behave.

The Visualising War and Peace project is collaborating with Never Such Innocence and Nik Perring to explore the forces that shape children’s habits of thinking and talking about conflict, and to examine what impact young people can have on adult approaches when they are included in these important conversations. In the following essay, Nik reflects on the project.

Nik Perring: How and Why We Should Listen To Young People’s Voices on Conflict 

In this essay I’ll discuss how young people are affected by conflict; what their views are – how those views are shaped; and what we can do to listen. And, where we go wrong.

And why should we listen to young people’s views on conflict?

Because conflict affects young people.

Because they are our future and are a part of the solution…

Because, often, they need help in ways they’re unable to attain, or ask for, on their own.

The Teaching of Good Morals and How They Get Ignored

A key marker we use in our children’s emotional growth is their decision-making. Or rather, whether or not they choose to make what we would consider to be a ‘correct’ decision. 

Do they share their sweets when no adult is around to tell them they should? Are they kind when it would suit them best, in the moment, to be selfish? 

We spend hours instilling what we consider to be Sound Morals, and we give them those on our terms and in language they can understand.  Because peace, listening, and kindness are simple concepts, really. The books we read to them, and the TV shows we encourage them to watch, are often fables with a clear message: good people make kind and considered decisions, even if it might not benefit them – and those decisions will usually result in a greater good and, often, personal reward. The examples are too many to number – those morals are at the core of most of the content we produce for young people, be it Wall.E making it his duty to bring life back to earth and save his new friend; the Paw Patrol crew making good ethical and environmental decisions with others’ feelings front and centre – and any fairy tale. What we don’t universally encourage is that line of thinking in the wider adult world. 

At parents’ evenings a teacher will tell us what our children are like as people – they’re helpful; friendly; make others welcome and we take great pride in that, as well we should. Conversely, we view any sort of bullying, dominant behaviour, violence, or theft as behaviours to be addressed and corrected so our young people are able to grow into good adults. As adults – as parents and educators – we consider it a duty to tell our young people what’s right and wrong; they are the blank canvas we paint our own morals on.

What’s perverse is that the answers we need as adults – the solutions and resolutions and the good ideas, are oftentimes exactly what we have told our young people they should be. But we forget. Or ignore. If it works in the heat of the playground, why would it not work in any other setting? And if it wouldn’t work in the same way as, say,  kids arguing over a stolen Mars bar, or someone jumping the lunch queue, or dispute between adults over a pint of lager, or stolen bicycle, or territory – why bother teaching it in the first place? Are these lessons we teach not designed to be the simple foundations on which we build a correct way of dealing with the world?

The ‘Child’ as More Than a ‘Victim’.

As adults we are excellent at lazily categorising people. Our idea of ‘the child’ – especially in discussions around their welfare – when we don’t personally know them – is abstract and sloppy and often self-serving. Similarly, the idea of a ‘child as a victim’ is something used as a statistic at worst and, at best, something well-meaning after they have become that victim. But how do we separate the individual child from the ‘child’ as a collective? By seeing them as individuals, with voices (who are often saying the same thing).

Young people are affected by conflict. mainly:

As people in a conflict zone.

As people whose relations are in conflict zones.        

As people displaced by conflict.

As observers of conflict through the media.

Their relationship to what’s happening elsewhere in the world has never been closer; often it is the other side of a slim phone screen. Their opinions on conflict, historically, have come through an adult-filter: what we show them in textbooks; what is in the media and on the news – all filtered through government dispatches, policy, or media agenda. Now, we have real-time sharing of photographs and video by young people who are physically there. 

That exposure to those in areas of conflict becomes direct when they share classrooms with displaced people. Now, they are able to talk to people from Ukraine, or Sudan, Yemen and Syria, Afghanistan – and this gives them the opportunity for direct discourse in real-time, while doing what young people do – walking to class, waiting for the bus, eating lunch, in the playground, etc. Stories are shared. Empathy is generated. Opinions are formed by conversation. As conversation is the act of speaking and listening it isn’t solely those who are meeting these new people who benefit – those newer to the country are able to share their stories. 

In my experience, as an educator who has worked with young people (with Never Such Innocence)  from Yemen, Ukraine, Sudan, Armenia, Ethiopia, Syria, Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, this also allows for those who’ve been displaced to find common ground with other displaced people – in a recent workshop in Darlington, young people from Ukraine discussed their experiences with young people from Sudan. While their experiences differed, they revelled in sharing many commonalities: first with each other, and then with the group. They were empowered by being heard. The teachers saw a connection and a new way of engaging. Moreover, in enabling discussion, neither groups of young people felt hampered by language – both spoke English as an additional language.

From Darlington: (Anon, Year 9 – from Sudan)

This is my normal now.

Some ask if I am a refugee.

Some ask where my home is on the map.

Some ask me to sit with them.

When I remember all that I lost, I try to remember all that I still have.

I breathe. I eat. I take time for myself.

I think of the friends I made along the way.

I think of the strength I found.

I am safe.

Someone listened.

Beyond that, there’s the shared experience of simply being a young person. When working with children from Afghanistan, their love of cricket was something shared with many from the UK. When working on a virtual poetry-sharing exchange with young people living on The Line of Control in Kashmir, and a school in Bradford, I saw bonds form over shared loves (exciting food, music, the importance of family) and concerns (global warming, pollution in the oceans) – illustrating to all involved how similar we really are, despite borders.

From Bradford (Anon, Year 6):

Come with me to the chippy and do lots of games and go to squirrel Park.

We don’t want you to feel helpless. 

We want you to know that some people out there care.

From Kashmir, in response:

It’s kind of you to welcome us!

I’d love to join you in your fun and feasting.

We will go together to the hills and catch butterflies.

I will give you walnuts, apricots and raspberries.

I will give you a place by the fire 

busy in gossips till midnight,

we will wake up together 

to watch the morning so bright.

The Importance of Listening

These Conversations on Conflict are vital.


It feels as though we’ve presented our (adult) selves with a conflict of our own. Despite all the coaching, we don’t really want to listen to young people. Sometimes it’s because it doesn’t fit our own agenda; and we’re certainly used to knowing best. In order to best represent young people and their experiences, and offer them the care and protection they need (geographically, and emotionally) would it not be best to talk to them directly?

And better still: listen to what they have to say?        

We need to stop assuming we know best. We also need to accept that, in doing that, we are hiding ourselves from the truth and removing the opportunity to empower young people and give them the skills of confident communication.

I’ve worked with people from the age of three to people in their eighties in schools, universities, libraries, youth groups, looked after children, and with military families. In every instance, when a young person has been given the confidence to share their thoughts honestly (not by repeating what they might assume we want to hear) the adults involved have been surprised and delighted by their wisdom and intelligence. They have allowed young people to shape policy (they’ve spoken at Stormont; at The Houses of Parliament; to Base Commanders, and LEA stakeholders)  – it’s been an affecting, and effective, start – it’s just not quite on the level it’s needed.

There are other aspects to conversations as well – let’s not forget the primary reason for being an educator is to educate. In the classroom, we give young people the opportunity to ask difficult questions and have their own opinions tested. While working with young people who were writing responses to conflict in the DRC (with Visualising War and Peace and Never Such Innocence)  one young person assumed the reason for people fighting there was because they were black. They were able to discuss this with a photographer and a journalist, who’d spent many years there, and through that discussion were able to revaluate their own opinions. Those opportunities can shape a person’s outlook beyond the session and affect their relationship with conflict and unfamiliar people and cultures over a lifetime.

From the DRC session (Anon, Year 6):

And here’s how we’ll do it:

We’ll stop being greedy or stuck-up,

and we’ll stop showing unkindness to those we don’t know.

We will look war in the eye and say NO.

It can be our life’s work, it can be understanding.

We can all help because peace is with us

and without it we’d be lost.

I spent a week on a NATO base with Never Such Innocence, working with young people from Norway, the UK, Canada, and Germany, having conversations, and making work, around life as a child in the military family. There is a lot of movement within that community with many young people saying they felt they struggled leaving friends and finding new ones – it helped them realise they weren’t the only ones with that on their minds. It wasn’t solely their peers that agreed – teachers were able to join the conversation and show that they had felt those things as well – bringing down another barrier. 

The Benefits of Reading Before an Audience

It’s only when we are able to hear individual voices that we can listen to individual feelings. And that is precisely why we need to be working with young people in this instance – showing them their opinions matter, that their feelings are valid, and that we will give them both a voice and an audience; anything less is lip service and patronising. How else can we shape the conversation if we don’t allow all aspects, and all affected, a seat at the table? 

I mentioned earlier that some young people have had the opportunity to read their poetry and speeches in front of an audience. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and work in front of a class is an important skill to have and the (lack of) confidence to do that is a common barrier.  Speaking in front of an external audience, and working towards that, can shape lives: it’s aided people with anxiety issues, stammers, and shown a different path from the traditionally academic one that some have struggled to engage with; it’s also allowed people to flourish in front of their peers in ways none would have expected. The ability to share ideas and talk concisely in front of people are skills we need to thrive. And what better gift can we give – to anyone – than the gift of confidence?

And what is the point in engaging with young people if we don’t allow their voices to be heard beyond a classroom?