Why I’m not talking to my 5-year-old about Osama bin Laden

by Claire McCarthy on May 3, 2011

Yesterday, Doctor Roslyn Murov offered advice to parents looking to explain to their children the many emotions adults are feeling after bin Laden’s death. Today, Doctor Claire provides a different perspective.

Ever since I got up Monday morning and saw the newspaper, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say to my two youngest children about the death of Osama bin Laden.

The fact that someone was killed on purpose, and that so many people are celebrating it, goes against so many things we’ve been teaching them. This one is tough. It was only after many hours of thinking that I came to a decision.

We aren’t going to say anything at all.

It’s not that hard to pull off. We don’t watch TV news, they tune out NPR no matter how loud we play it in the kitchen, and although the newspaper is usually strewn across the living room couch, Natasha (10 years old) and Liam (5 years old) are unlikely to look at it closely.

If somehow they catch wind of it, because of something a sibling or neighbor says or because of a news clip on TV, I’ve got a script ready: “A man who did a lot of bad things died, and people are happy he can’t hurt anybody anymore.” And then I will change the subject.

It’s just that this is really complicated. My own feelings are complicated. I hate what happened on 9/11, and want justice. At the same time, I worry about retaliation. I worry that if we kill people, we become like the terrorists. And at the same time, I think about all the fine people in our military that have given their lives to fight Al Qaeda; this is such a victory for them. I am a jumble of thoughts and emotions. If I am a jumble, how can I expect a fourth-grader and preschooler to make sense of it?

“If I am a jumble, how can I expect a fourth-grader and preschooler to make sense of it?”

Plus, this is scary stuff. 9/11 was absolutely terrifying. Natasha was 9 months old when it happened; Liam wasn’t even a faint glimmer in anyone’s eye. They have no concept of what happened, and I don’t want to start explaining the terror and awfulness to them. Nor do I want to get into the details of our war in Afghanistan. I will, but not now. And not in the context of explaining the execution of someone.

It’s different with my older children. Michaela, 20, had listened to President Obama’s speech, watched the news coverage, and has some clear opinions and fears. Zack, 18, who is studying International Relations at the College of William and Mary, sent me a long text with his thoughts based on everything he has been learning. Elsa, 13, who is remarkably aware of current events (maybe because she is a devotee of The Colbert Report), had a very nuanced view of her own.

That’s what this is: nuanced. This is about history. This is about values and beliefs. This is about politics and military tactics and justice and closure. This is about decisions that aren’t clean and simple, that could have repercussions. This is about living in a world that is dangerous and uncertain.

My older children are ready to think about what the death of Osama bin Laden means for us and about us. They need to think about it, because soon they will be out in the world, making decisions for themselves and others. I want to talk with them about it, while I still have a chance to influence their beliefs, values and hopes with mine.

But the little ones…they aren’t ready. Right now, I want them to just feel loved, and to believe that they will be kept safe and that the world is a just and sensible place. Soon they will come to realize that they can’t be kept completely safe and that the world isn’t just or sensible. That is the reality of their post-9/11 lives. We will help them with that, when they are ready.

But not now.

13 comments

  • Cody marx

    I agree with you very strongly. My mind has been all over the place since I caught wind of the death of Osama BinLaden! I am a 19 year old teenager who has recently enlisted in the army so I have a great respect for what our soldiers are doing, and I unterstand that they have been fighting for our freedom. But does that really give them the right to take a human life (maybe), but that gives us, as American citizens, no right to celebrate. Yes Osama may have done some horriable things but in a sense haven’t we all had a thought in the backs of our minds (man I just wanna kill him or man i wish she would just dissappear off the face of the world). In no way am i saying that i support what BinLaden had done but all im saying is maybe he was fighting for his beliefs just as we are fighting for ours ? We all have to stop and take a few seconds to think, am i really doing the right thing by celebrating the death of another human being ?

  • Marie Cooney

    Thank you for this very thoughtful response and the fact you have a prepared answer should the youngest children start asking questions. I am reminded my nieces were young children thrown into hard to answer questions right after 9/11. My sister did what was being recommended: limit television coverage as much as possible. Still one niece, now in college, wrote abouit the day, then gave me her throughts for Christmas. Strange gift, but cherished, because I was trusted with her throughts about a tragic day for all the world, not just the USA.

  • Charles

    I think that your conflicts are intellectual whereas a child’s conflicts are emotional and able to be dealt with. I would suggest considering relating the pure affection – love a child will have for any animal – cat, dog, skunk, bear, horse. Sometimes an animal can go bad and we just don’t know why. A dog can get beyond the Red Zone and can end up hurting everyone. To protect others – even other dogs, sometimes a vet will have to put the dog down. That is very sad for sure. Well the same thing is true of some (very few) people – for whatever reason they go really bad and hurt other people. They won’t stop and they won’t even allow someone to stop them. That is what happened with Osama Bin Laden. Once he was a builder of buildings and yet something snapped in him. He caused thousands of people to get hurt and just like that dog, the only thing that could prevent him continuing was what happened. It is really really sad and really confusing that it did come to that.
    - That is what I would tell a 10 or 11 year old.

  • TLCD

    Thank you for writing this. I also have a 10 year old and an 8 year old that we have talked in great length about 9/11 to as inevitable every year they have the news coverage and they have also covered it in school now as well (and we are in Canada!) But although they have the information I doubt they really have understanding yet. My husband and I had not talked about how we will answer questions if they come up but it will be one of our lunch date topics of conversion today before the kids hit us with it! I’m still in a surreal state of the events. I can say I’m not celebrating his death but am happy he will no longer be able to harm others and then fearful of what is to come from this as well.

  • Taraclack

    I agree about trying to shield them but you cannot do this forever. If they ask I would be honest, if they do not I would not bring it up. It is simple, let them bring it up and get it out if they feel the need. But shielding children from reality unrealistically can put them is harms way as well. He was an evil man who killed thousands and if he needed to be killed to stop others from being murdered so be it . We have to protect the innocent who are walking along a street and get blown up because of some archaic ideology.

  • Currie

    i agree it is all about getting back and the people who are doing this have lessons to learn from this as well 2 wrongs don’t make a right. my son was one of those who went to Iraq with his wife and what was the real reason for doing this . when negative energy is put in motion by being acted on there are consequence that come from this and the more it builds the more sever the lesson it is here to teach us that is the reason for being here in the first place to become better people ask this question are we just here to blow up one another or what. The future generation have to look forward to

  • Taube

    I told my 3 year-olds that “We got the bad guy.” My daughter asked where we put him. I said “Pakistan.” Not that she knows what that is…

  • C Sylvia

    My son and I have already discussed it. Better he hear it at home, than in the sometimes distorted words of others.

  • ArmyWife76

    I cannot imagine living in a world where this isn’t something even the youngest member of the house are aware of. We have either been in the war, about to come home from the war, or about to leave for the war for almost 10 years now. We’re military so our children are very aware of some of these events even from an early age. I suppose it is something we’re forced to think about and civilians are more readily able to not think of until they wish to. After so many deployments and so very many years spent a part fighting a war, we’re grateful to finally have some sense of accomplishment. Though I find it in poor taste to celebrate a death the way some people were the night of the annoucement, it was a happy occasion in our home and we were all very excited about it. Our 5-year-old knows the bad man who fights against daddy has been killed. My children have known nothing but endless deployments and daddy through a web cam so they don’t have the luxury of seeing the world as a safe and sensible place. Of course, because my children live that life others are able to live without knowing any of it or ever seeing pictures of daddy away in the war. From the first time they saw daddy in a desert uniform like the men on the news with his M16 in one hand as he hugged them goodbye with the other they knew the world was not a safe place. We made the decision very early to not lie to them about it when daddy was going away to war or why daddy had a gun at work or why daddy was in a tank in that picture he sent. And so we watch the news, we talk about it, and they know men like their daddy are always there to keep them safe. My little ones don’t have much choice but to be ready, it is just part of our lives.

  • Pedigasdoc

    Great post. Admittedly, I had not read it for a few days because I had preconceived ideas on what would be stated. This story or should I say saga, really is as complex as you state. Depending on your point of reference, there exists a plethora of reactions you can have. Having been in the military as a health care professional as 9/11 occurred, I can say that most of my adult life has been affected by this one “master-mind”. So much of my time in the military was used to care for those members either directly or indirectly affected by that one day, this one man. Personally, I cried when I finally heard the news. Not out of sadness, but all the emotions of the last decade, all the efforts, all the trials and tribulations came to the surface. I am completly at peace knowing that this one man no longer exists.

    I have two young children, who admittedly are very sheltered from world events and tragedy. My wife and I both served in the military. Both kids were born in a military hospital and as toddlers they saw the Navy SEALS train on a regular basis. We spoke in a simplistic manner of the evil and harm this man was responsible for. We stated that there are scary things in this world, he was one of them, and no one has to worry about him anymore. We then went outside and played jump rope and looked at the spring bloom around the house. All was good.

  • Brandy King

    I just saw this video called “Kids React” and it shows the many and varied reactions that kids are having to this news: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/09/kids-react-bin-laden-death_n_859443.html

  • http://www.confessionsofadrmom.com Melissa(ConfessionsOfaDr.Mom)

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. My children are 3 and 6 and in no way are they ready to digest this kind of news. They simply are not ready. Like you said, it’s complicated. They can barely grasp that the class guinea pig died. Of course we will discuss this one day. However…not now.

  • Dabigguns357

    ummm who cares,he was a terrorist that needed to be delt with,if infact thats what really happened.We didn’t get any pic’s,tweets,or tabloids of the actual event,just the word of our government(laughing out loud).

    Bad guys don’t always wear black and good guys always military uniforms with an American Flag on them.

    ___________________________________________________________________
    IT’S BETTER TO HAVE A GUN ON YOUR HIP THAN ONE TO YOUR HEAD

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