Libby Garvey knew it was time to turn off the television set after her 8-year-old daughter Ruth erected a bomb shelter out of blankets in their Arlington living room.
When 4-year-old Julia glimpsed an image of a haggard American prisoner of war and said, "Mommy, I'm scared," Marian Lemle, of the District, decided to watch the nightly news out of her little girl's presence.
And Betty McGonagle, of Arlington, did not know whether to laugh or cry when 3-year-old Grady donned his father's scuba mask and piped, "This is my gas mask. What's a gas mask?"
The Persian Gulf War -- and the immediate, nonstop media coverage of it -- has presented parents with uncomfortable questions. How much do they share with their children about the conflict, and how much do they shield them from it? Is the war an opportunity to impart historical and moral lessons or a potentially traumatizing experience for youngsters?
While the answers will vary from child to child, local psychologists say there are certain constants in the way children experience a national crisis and how adults should respond to their fears without introducing new ones.
Although specialists and most parents interviewed agreed it is neither possible nor desirable to guard children entirely from an event of such magnitude, they say that some censoring of information is advisable for children younger than 12.
"It is possible to tell a child too much, just like with sex education," said Roberta Maughn, a human relations specialist with the Howard County school system who counsels elementary school pupils. "It is important for parents to listen to what the question is and provide as factual a response as possible without reading too much into it. If they ask, 'Do we have missiles,' say yes, but not, 'We have this many and this is the kind and here is what they do.' "
The advice is particularly relevant for children 8 and younger, who see the world in concrete terms and have a difficult time grasping subtle concepts such as motive, Maughn said. Young children are likely to be most concerned about how the war might affect their friends and families, rather than the geopolitical forces behind it.
As a result, parents should remember to assure children of their personal safety. Several psychologists suggest using a map or globe to point out how far the Middle East is from the United States, explaining that a military battle has not been fought on mainland U.S. soil in many years, and painting the security measures that are being used here to avert a terrorist attack in a positive light.
Karen Jaffe, a Washington resident who runs a national children's television clearinghouse called Kids Net, cautions that lying or discouraging youths from talking about the war should never be part of the procedure for helping them cope, even when the truth may be painful.
When her 7-year-old daughter asked Jaffe whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might drop bombs on the United States, for instance, Jaffe's response was, "We don't think so."
"We don't lie and say absolutely not," she said.
Brian Doyle, a Georgetown University psychology professor who has studied the effects of violence on children, answered the same question for his 7-year-old son by "emphasizing the positive realities, which is that he is in a loving home in a safe neighborhood with two parents who care about him and that we don't anticipate any problems for us."
Similarly, McGonagle swallowed hard and answered her 3-year-old's query about gas masks by telling him "that people in Israel were afraid of poison gas. Then he wanted to know why anyone would put poison gas on someone, and I said, 'That is a very good question.' "
Ralph Gemelli, director of child psychiatry training at Children's Hospital in Washington and a retired Navy captain, said the war provides the greatest challenges for parents who do not support it.
An adult who agrees with President Bush's decision to use military force can more easily explain that Saddam is "a bad man" who had to be stopped, Gemelli said. Parents who oppose the war, however, are more likely to be inundated with questions about "why the adults didn't use words instead of their hands, as children are taught to do."
According to Gemelli, while a parent's primary obligation is to be truthful with their youngsters, even if it means sharing their own conflicting feelings, adults should realize that imparting a negative view of the military action to a child has its costs.
"It's really going to help them in the long run if they feel that it was the president of the United States who made the proper decision," Gemelli said. "If you start to believe the president is a manipulator who isn't being honest with us, it will probably raise your anxiety level about your father and the man's ability to protect you."
At the same time, many parents say they feel comfortable letting their children know they do not support the war. Martha van der Veen, of Arlington, sees the outbreak of hostilities as an opportunity to educate her 6-year-old Jon and 8-year-old Alicia about "the realities of the world" and reinforce lessons in nonviolence they have learned at home.
Although the children have played "hide-and-seek" from Saddam around the house, they "know that we don't think war is right and they agree," van der Veen said. "We have tried to tell them that nobody is all good or all bad."
Minimizing children's exposure to graphic television or newspaper reports may also reduce their anxiety, specialists say. In the early days of the war, many families kept their televisions turned on constantly, with little monitoring of what their children were seeing. According to Doyle, the Georgetown professor, such uncensored viewing is a bad idea, especially for children under 12.
"They need to know what is happening, but they do not need a constant stream of body bags or pools of blood on the street," he said. "Ideally, adults should be present to see it and talk about it and use their judgment. It makes sense to watch a program that summarizes things rather than 37 minutes of CNN."
The impact of television viewing will be most striking if the family is watching at a time they ordinarily would not -- for example, while eating dinner -- or if a parent's absorption with the news is so complete that it interferes with normal caretaking activities, such as helping children with their homework, specialists said.
Scott and Bonnie Buehler, who operate a Montgomery County counseling service called Parent Care Inc., say that maintaining regular routines is important when everyone's nerves are a little frayed. To reinforce the idea that life goes on even in times of war, they recommend using a large calendar listing the events that are sure to happen in a household -- breakfast, ballet lessons, birthdays -- and crossing them off as they occur.
Giving children an outlet for their concerns is another useful coping strategy, they said. Urging them to write letters to soldiers or the president, providing an opportunity for them to express their patriotism or opposition to the war, may help restore a sense of control that has been shattered within the last two weeks.