Our first conversation about the war -- though I have never used that word, "war" -- seemed almost sweet, if I dare call it that. I was reading bedtime stories to my 4-year-old daughter, and stopped early so I could watch President Bush address the nation.

"Mommy has to go watch the president on television, sweetie," I told her, trying to explain why on earth anything on TV could supersede reading to her. "It's very important. But if you are still awake when he is finished, I'll come back up and read another book."

She promptly fell asleep, but she didn't forget.

And so the next morning, over her Cheerios, she asked me this:

"Mommy, what was the president talking about that was so important?"

There it was. The question. Do I lie? Avoid? Tell a cautious truth?

I opted for the last alternative. Four is too young, I thought, to know about war. But Ryan is the inquisitive sort.

"Well, honey," I said carefully, "the president was talking about how there is a bad man in a country far, far away, and how he's doing bad things and so we are going to go there and we're going to make him stop so that everything is okay."

She looked at me for a moment, then gave a heavy sigh.

"Do I have to go?" she asked. "Or can I just get a babysitter?"

I laughed. I repeated the story to my friends. They thought it was adorable. I thought it was adorable.

Until she came home from school and started talking about the bad man and the bad things he does. Like cut off people's hands when they tell a lie. And cut off their feet. And, if they're really bad, cut off their heads so they are dead.

Until she started having nightmares.

Until she wet the bed for the first time in forever.

Until she cried all the way to school because she didn't want to hear any more "scary stories."

Until I realized that my child now saw monsters. Real ones.

It turns out a first-grader had told her these stories in her after-school program. Now the "bad man" had a name -- though she badly bungles her attempts to pronounce "Saddam" -- and the "bad things" he does had been specified, in terrible detail. She had been filing away this information for days, trying to comprehend.

Like any 4-year-old would, she took this personally. She was thinking and rethinking every lie she has ever told in her short lifetime. Wondering what that meant for her. Wondering if the bad man was going to come here. Wondering, as she asked me, point-blank, on the way to school Monday morning: "Will someone cut off my hands because I told Mommy a lie?"

My heart sank.

So I did what the experts tell parents to do. In a calm tone that masked my own anxiety about the war, I stressed that the bad man is very, very far away. I told her that our country has sent strong people to stop him. I reassured her that she is safe, that her mommy is safe, that all of the people she loves are safe. I told her that we don't punish people here like that. That no one is going to cut off anyone's hands.

And then I felt crushing guilt. For the first time, Mommy couldn't explain away the monster of my little girl's nightmares by playfully looking in closets and under the bed. Or, more to the point, by assuring her that the bad guy -- be it one created by her imagination or simply the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz" -- is only "make-believe."

Because I am the one who told her the bad man exists in the first place.

It was a split-second decision, one informed, in part, by the fact that my daughter is aware of things happening in "the grown-up world." Though she is in pre-kindergarten, she plays in a schoolyard with children as old as 11 or 12, children who see newspapers and the news on television. As in the case of the sniper, which led to police stationed outside her school at drop-off time and canceled recess for weeks, I knew she'd have questions. And I wanted to be sure I was the one giving the answers.

But I never anticipated this. I worried that she'd come home and ask me what war is. I worried that she'd ask me about soldiers and guns and all the things that older kids playact on the playground. That she'd want to know if they were using real guns to get the bad man, and if those guns could kill people. ("Kill" being another word she had come home asking about only a few months before.)

Somehow, it never occurred to me to worry that she would hear about the viscera of Hussein's human rights violations -- about amputations and beheadings. Things that make me shudder. Unspeakable things, coming out of my 4-year-old's mouth. She was me, when I was 10, reading Anne Frank's diary and keening, overwhelmed by the knowledge that some people were so bad they would kill a kid, and that having a mommy who loves you wasn't nearly enough to keep you safe. That monsters could be real. I had nightmares for weeks.

The mother of the little girl who shared these stories with my child was no more prepared. When I called to gently let the mom know what had been happening -- not to blame, but to be sure she knows what nightmares were rattling around in her own child's head -- she was thrown. She hadn't discussed the war with or in front of her child. She had kept her away from it on television. She had no idea where any of this had come from. All she could think of was that her child had heard it from yet another, probably older child she's exposed to. Just as my daughter had.

It happens. Every day, all over the place. I hear it from other parents -- after 9/11, during the sniper attacks, and now, with this war. Last week, my 7-year-old nephew came home distraught from his elementary school in central New York. He told his parents he was afraid "Saddam is going to come here and kill all of us." A kid in his class had said so.

I expect more questions from my daughter. Hard ones. I'll encourage them -- but I'll also limit what I tell her as best I can.

The question I fear most is the one I can already see twisting in my pretty child's head. Though she does not yet know the word, this is her first exposure to the concept of evil. Innocence is another casualty of war. And one day, I'm certain, she is going to ask me this:

"Why would anyone do those mean things to people?"

And I don't know what I'll answer. Because I can't explain that, not even to myself.