Children’s voices on war and peace

What forces shape children’s habits of visualising war and peace? And what impact can children’s voices have on how all of us imagine, understand, pursue, mitigate and prevent war and on how we imagine and work for peace?

We are surrounded by narratives of war from a very young age, via books, films, family stories, museums, online games, news reports and many other media. They profoundly influence how we view, plan, conduct and resolve conflicts as adults and how we conceptualise and pursue peace; and yet their impacts (positive and negative) remain understudied. Currently, research on the militarisation of childhood, peace education and habits of representing war and peace are surprisingly siloed. Dr Alice König is building an international network of researchers to bring Social Science and Humanities approaches into dialogue; to involve professionals whose industries directly or indirectly shape children’s habits of visualising war and its aftermath; and to bring children’s voices to bear on discussions. As well as examining how children’s ideas of conflict are shaped as they grow up, she wants to explore what impact children’s voices can have in shifting adult views and wider social, cultural and political discourses of war and peace.

Our exposure to war stories and socialisation into particular habits of thinking starts very young. The focus of Waad Al-Kateab’s acclaimed documentary film For Sama is the director’s one-year-old daughter, a child born in a war zone. Early in the documentary, we see Sama’s family taking shelter in the hospital where her father works as bombs fall outside. One of the nurses says ‘Not to worry doctor, we’re strong, we’re resilient, we’re well-fortified!’ Sama babbles and her father jokes ‘She’s saying “Mum, why did you give birth to me? It’s been nothing but war since the day I was born.”’ Her mother then reflects: ‘But what a life I have brought you into… Will you ever forgive me?’ Before she has learned to speak for herself, Sama is not only experiencing the impacts of war first-hand; she is also hearing other people talk about it, and her family are imagining what she might say about war if she could. Far too many children like Sama experience armed conflict directly; but many more experience it only through storytelling, and even those who grow up in war zones have their habits of visualising war and peace mediated by the narratives that circulate around them.

As J. Marshall Beier’s edited volume Discovering Childhood in International Relations (Palgrave 2020) underlines, children have long been marginalised from peace and conflict studies. Equally problematic is the tendency only to focus on children who have been directly impacted by war (child soldiers, refugees, children suffering physical or mental trauma). This results in a focus on children in the Global South and an emphasis on their victimhood. Some narratives of war and peace are culture- and context-specific; but many of the forces that shape children’s habits of visualising war and peace today are transnational, influencing young people all around the world. For this reason, a more holistic approach is required, one that examines the impact of war stories on children whether or not they have been directly affected by conflict, and one that recognises children’s agency and not just their victimhood; for, as Beier notes , the children whose ideas are being shaped today will be making decisions about conflict and its prevention/resolution tomorrow.

Equally important is a recognition that discourses of war and peace overlap with each other: rather than studying the evolution and influence of discourse of war and peace separately, it is important to explore how ideas of war, its aftermath, conflict resolution and peacebuilding form in relation to each other. Children and their agency have recently received more attention in critical peace studies (e.g. H.Berents, Young People and Everyday Peace, 2018; S.McEvoy-Levy, Peace and Resistance in Youth Cultures, 2018; A.Watson, multiple articles on ‘Children and Peace’). It is striking, however, that siloed approaches remain the norm, with research on the militarisation of children, peace education, childhood studies and the representation of war and peace tending to happen in parallel rather than in dialogue. Dr König is building an international network of researchers to cut across these disciplinary divides and to bring Social Science approaches (from anthropology, IR, psychology and sociology) and Humanities approaches (from art history, literary studies, film studies, history, music, media studies and philosophy) into dialogue. She also seeks to involve professionals whose storytelling industries directly and indirectly influence how children visualise war and peace, and to bring children’s voices to bear on discussions. Together, this network will address the following questions:

  • What kinds of war stories, in what different media, are children of different ages most regularly exposed to in different parts of the world?
  • What aspects of war dominate the narratives that children are exposed to, and what narratives about war’s aftermath, conflict transformation/resolution and peacebuilding dominate?
  • What patterns can we identify in the representation of children in narratives of war and peace aimed at children? And how do they shape children’s perceptions of their own agency/victimhood?
  • How do children themselves describe the impact which different narratives of war/peace have on them, and what other impacts can be observed through other means?
  • What do children think of dominant modes of representing war and peace, and how differently might they represent them if in charge of the storytelling?
  • What impact can children’s views/voices have on entrenched/adult habits of visualising war and peace?

One of the ground-breaking aspects of this project is the inclusion of children’s voices. Dr König will team up with Never Such Innocence (an NGO which gives children and young people a voice on conflict) to run multiple workshops for local school children, exploring different representations of war and peace and giving them a chance to produce some representations of their own. She will also host an exhibition of conflict photography, featuring work by Hugh Kinsella Cunningham. This exhibition will act as a catalyst for discussions, with children at the workshops challenged to design a new photography assignment for Hugh, reflecting how they might visualise war/peace if they were behind the camera. A selection of their responses will be shared with network members, and there will also be opportunities for children and young people to feed into discussions at various stages in the project. One aim is to develop and promote new methodologies for involving children and young people in research as agents, amplifying their voices rather than speaking for them.

As we look ahead to an uncertain future, which will probably see increasingly complex and hard-to-define forms of armed and cyber conflict, it is difficult to overstate the importance of understanding how children are socialised into particular ways of visualising war and peace. This development of this network is just the first step in an ambitious, multi-strand project, extending over the next decade, to facilitate further inquiry into the multiplicity of storytelling trends, local and transnational, that shape how children – and the adults they become – imagine and realise war and peace. Stories are world-building, and so are storytellers. It is a long-term aim of this project to build capacity in all sorts of different storytellers, young and not-so-young, to harness and shape narratives of war and peace in future to help prevent or mitigate the effects of conflict.

Recent/Upcoming Events:

  • June 9th 2022, 1330-1500 BST: live webinar with Never Such Innocence, giving children and young people from all around the world a chance to share their thoughts and feelings on the war in Ukraine, with a panel of academics, defence experts and politicians. You can watch a recording here.
  • 6-30th June 2023: Photography exhibition at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, featuring the work of Hugh Kinsella Cunningham; schools workshops will take place, giving children opportunities to ‘get behind the lens’ and discuss how they visualise war and peace.