Philosophy with a Five Year Old

“Mom, is this where war happened?”

As we walk along the streets of Sarajevo, I get this question constantly: when the kids notice a hole in a wall, an abandoned building, or just a pothole. They’re obsessed with it because they don’t understand it.


In Veliki Park, there’s the Children’s memorial for the ones killed during the four-year siege. There are also gravestones that are centuries old, as well as ones that are less than three decades old. The kids don’t understand why they can’t play among the old gravestones.


I tried to explain to five year old Squirrel what graves were by telling her about burying my mother in the ground.

“That’s really sad. Why did you put her in the ground?” she asked.

Good question. So I went back to the creation stories I knew — how God created everything, all the animals, plants, stars and the milky way. And then how she took mud from a nearby river —

“Wait, God’s a girl?”

“Yes, well, God’s not really like us. God is more than us. But I think God is a girl. What do you think?”

After some discussion on what God is, I continued about why it wasn’t sad that we buried our dead — that we came from the earth and went back to it where we could help flowers grow —

“Wait, what? Flowers grow from our tummies?!! Won’t that hurt?”

“Flowers in our tummies?” two-year old Goose squealed gleefully. “Eeewwwwww!!” Then they ran off to feed the pigeons.


So that still didn’t explain the war. I thought maybe taking them to the War Childhood Museum might help since it focuses exclusively on stories of children who survived the war. It’s a small museum, and each artifact — a stuffed animal, a picture, a waxed apple, a bowl in which ice cream was made when there was electricity — are all accompanied by written stories of the people who donated the artifacts.


The stories didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the girls, but I cried and then took the girls for ice cream and fought the urge to go to every toy store I knew and buy them all the toys.

The next day, as we were walking through the park, Squirrel asked again why there was a war.

“Well, there are bad people” I began helplessly, trying to sift through what I had read so far about the history of the Balkans, about the razing of the city by various empires across the centuries, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, the bodies of Bosnians strung up along the street in World World II as the Nazis retreated.

I also thought about something Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television host said about tragedies: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.”

And so I tried to explain to my daughters the importance of kindness, that the more kindness we show others, the more kindness there will be. I held their hands and we crossed the street together.

Want to help? Consider a donation to one of these organizations that focus on helping children affected by violence across the globe:



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