What do you remember learning about peace as you grew up?
By the time we reach adulthood, we have often been socialised into very particular ways of thinking about peace. Living in the UK, for example, people grow up learning about – and celebrating – Armistice Day, ‘Victory in Europe Day’ and other events and anniversaries connected with the end of the First and Second World Wars. Over the past 25 years, the news has been dominated intermittently by talk of the Good Friday Agreement and wider efforts to secure and preserve a fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, children will have seen coverage in newspapers, on TV and via social media of national leaders gathering around flag-bedecked tables ready for ‘peace talks’. And they may be aware – peripherally at least – of how many peace processes hit challenges or fail, thanks to recent events in Afghanistan among other places impacted by long-running conflicts.
Along the way, they may have seen footage of anti-war protests, with an array of peace symbols from Picasso’s iconic dove to the ‘peace and love’ sign designed in the 1950s for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).[i] They may have heard calls for world peace or community harmony in religious contexts.[ii] Ideas of peace feature in the lyrics of popular music; and they may have read books and watched films – such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Beauty and the Beast, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings– that end happily, with conflict resolution and calm, after violence and disorder.
How do these various influences shape the ways that we, as adults, understand and visualise peace? In the first place, they tend to reinforce a strong assumption that peace and war are closely connected; indeed, that peace is the antithesis of war – or, to put it another way, that peace is the absence of war. Idealising symbolism and fantasy narratives can encourage a utopian view of peace, as a ‘natural’ state of things which is easy to achieve and inhabit the minute war is put aside. In reality, of course, conflict resolution and peace-building require stamina, compromise, difficult dialogues, re-humanisation, and huge amounts of hard work, often over decades.[iii] News coverage of national and interstate peace processes, meanwhile, conditions us to think that it is primarily world leaders who make peace, by negotiating with all sides and crafting peace treaties which their governments then implement – a very top-down view of peace-building that studies have shown to be far less sustainable than local, grassroots, bottom-up initiatives involving many different members of a community.[iv]
In a nutshell, we are conditioned into habits of visualising peace as we grow up which we often have to unlearn if we want to understand and contribute meaningfully to conflict resolution and peace-building later in life.[v] But how early does this happen? And what do young people think about peace before this kind of conditioning takes places?
To find out, the Visualising War project is conducting some workshops in schools to learn more about how children aged 6-18 visualise peace. This museum item captures what a group of 7-8 year-olds shared with us when we went to talk to them. If you have any young people in your life, you might find it interesting to ask them some of the following questions – and you might be surprised by their answers:
- What does peace look like? Are there any colours or pictures that you help you feel peaceful?
- What does peace sound like? Loud, quiet? Fast, slow? What sounds are NOT peaceful?
- Do you any smells help you feel peaceful? Certain foods? Certain places? (someone’s home, or the sea shore, or one of your toys?)
- If you had to think of a taste that feels peaceful to you, what would it be?
- What kinds of things might you touch if you want to feel peaceful?
Children named all sorts of colours – yellow, green, blue, red, black – all with a personal connection to peace for each of them. For example, red was the colour of one child’s flag and reminded them of home. Another had a black dog and felt peaceful at the thought of fluffy cuddles. Yellow was described as bright and sunny; green, the colour of gardens and calm; and blue, the colour of summer sky. Some children had clearly inherited a few of these associations from older people around them – but for others, these connections between certain colours and peace came from very individual experiences.
The smells, tastes and sounds which they mentioned made it clear how strongly the children connected peace with two things: home and happiness. Lollipops, Phish Food ice cream, macaroni, and pie… comfort food and treats. Hugs with their family were mentioned several times. They talked at little of peace as something quiet and contemplative: for example, several described being curled up with a book as a peaceful experience, while another described sitting still in the garden at night while swifts swooped by. But they also chatted excitedly about trampoline time, doing front flips, going to theme parks and playing with friends as peaceful activities. For them, peace was almost synonymous with the ingredients that make up a happy, secure childhood.
We played some word association games, including one that got them thinking about the opposite of peace. Their answers ranged from noise, busyness, rudeness and injury to more deliberate aggressions like hurting others, fighting and war. This particular set of children live in a small seaside town on the east coast of Scotland. Interestingly, when asked if they thought they lived in a ‘peaceful’ part of the world, many say ‘no’, explaining that they dislike crowded streets and beaches and would prefer to live in a place with fewer people – ideally just their own family and friends. This may in part be a hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic; but it also reinforces an impression from some of their other answers, that for children of this age, with secure family bases, peace starts at home.
This came across also in their answers to the question ‘What kinds of people can help make the world a more positive place?’. Many mentioned their parents first, for a range of reasons: because they are kind, because they are polite or respectful, because they are curious and enjoy finding out about other people. There was a strong sense that they saw their nuclear families not only as nurturing spaces for themselves to grow up in but also as positive forces in the world, radiating care and good at problem-solving. As well as parents and close family, they named people like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg as important peace-builders. While politicians may not feature much on the radar of 7-8 year-olds, it is interesting that prominent environmentalists do – and that these children connected care of animals and protection of the wider environment with peacebuilding. Curiosity, exploration, care and kindness were the things that these activists had in common with family members. Given that we had previously discussed books and films which have ‘happy’ or ‘peaceful’ endings after conflict, it was interesting that none of them mentioned action heroes, characters who ‘restore order’ or help ‘good’ triumph over ‘evil’ by winning battles (like Aslan, the Pevensie children and Harry Potter), as viable solutions in the real world.
We cannot extrapolate very much from our findings at just one workshop, involving a group of relatively privileged children growing up in a relatively peaceful part of the UK (albeit a place which some of them wish was less ‘busy’!). But some interesting points emerge. While there was some evidence of social conditioning that had already begun influencing their habits of visualising peace, the children we talked to also expressed very independent, personally held views of peace – something reflected in their drawings as much as in their word clouds. There was only one dove, sitting in a field of poppies, for example, compared with various teddies, swimming pools/gardens, favourite pets, and the Pink Panther in their artwork.
Their emphasis on the peace they find in everyday activities with close family and friends is a good reminder that peace is something that we can experience (or be deprived of) from moment-to-moment. Many adults have a habit of thinking of peace as part of our macro-environment: the broad socio-political conditions in which we live. This habit is reinforced by our tendency to think of peace in relation to war, as the absence of or a positive alternative to conflict. If wars are waged (for the most part) by states or at least by sizeable groups, and if they disrupt political, social and economic infrastructures as well as individual lives, it follows (we often assume) that peace is also delivered and experienced at scale, across society.[vi] By contrast, these children’s drawings depict what we might call ‘pockets’ of ‘everyday’ peace, rather than ‘global’ peace – but for them (in their experience) that is all the peace you need. Children growing up in conflicts zones or in less secure households would doubtless respond very differently; but we would do well to remember that, before their lives have been much touched by war or other forms of violence or disorder, children like the ones we interviewed equate peace with fun.
What do you think?
- Can you remember a time from your childhood when you felt peaceful? What was it like? Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? What made it feel peaceful?
- Do you think that your ideas and understanding of peace have changed much since you were a child? In what ways?
- What factors in your environment do you think particularly influenced your ideas of peace as you grew up?
- What are the benefits of listening to how young people visualise peace? What can we learn from them?
Please note: this museum entry relates to some wider research being conducted by the Visualising War project in collaboration with the charity Never Such Innocence, to develop new mechanisms for involving more children in conversations on conflict. You can read about our recent webinar featuring children’s voices on the war in Ukraine here.
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
You might also like ‘How do children visualise ‘Life after Conflict’?‘, ‘How to make a fruit basket for aliens‘, ‘Jojo Rabbit‘, ‘Pentagon Peace Pals‘ and ‘Unlearning War‘ and items with the tag ‘Care‘.
Alice König (April 2022)
[i] For another of Picasso’s doves: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-dove-p11366.
[ii] See, for example, this item in our museum: https://peacemuseum.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2022/05/05/make-me-a-channel-of-your-peace/.
[iv] These articles offer some helpful comparisons of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ peace-building techniques: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0263395715622967 and https://peacesciencedigest.org/pitfalls-of-top-down-peacebuilding/. You can also listen to Dr Roddy Brett discussing grassroots/bottom-up peace-building in this podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1717787/9909987.
[v] You can read an excellent study of the ‘militarisation’ of childhood here, edited by J. Marshall Beier: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9781137002143. For a study of the ways in which young people can be excluded from but also included in peacebuilding, I recommend Helen Berents’ book Young People and Everyday Peace.