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.

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