Explaining Osama bin Laden Death to Children

Julie Ryan Evans
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Osama Bin Laden Early this morning my husband and son came to wake me. I immediately asked my husband if he'd seen the news, and he gave me a puzzled look telling me he hadn't. I'd stayed up late last night and saw President Obama announce to the world that Osama bin Laden is dead, but my husband had gone to bed early. I was dying to tell him, but with my son's 7-year-old ears there, I bit my tongue at the last minute and mouthed it to him, "Bin Laden is dead."

Stunned and firing a million questions at me, he went off to fire up the computer and turn on the news, while I laid there with my own questions racing through my own head, namely: What should I tell my son about this historic news? What should I say about this "good" news that has people everywhere celebrating a man's death, cheering for his demise, and reveling in the fact that he'll never take another breath? How do you explain that to a child?

It was the death of a horrible man who has done atrocious things, and stopping the evil is a good thing. However, I also believe and have tried to instill values in my children that two wrongs don't make a right; that the death penalty is wrong; that human life isn't ours to take. But now I want to sing in the streets with everyone else?

If there's a case to be made, this is certainly a good one, but I still struggle with feeling jubilant over a man's death. And if killing him is to be lauded, then shouldn't we kill everyone who does evil? How much evil does one have to do before we say killing him is okay, that it's okay to party in the streets about killing him? It doesn't really add up for me, so I'm not sure how it's supposed to for him.

We've never talked to our son about terrorists, or 9/11, or many of the world's evils that would mar his innocent world. Maybe that's wrong, but seeing as how learning of the existence of tornadoes a year ago has left him terrified and requires nightly reassurance that one won't strike our home, it doesn't seem he's ready for some of the bigger stuff. Also, I'm not prepared for some of his questions that are sure to come.

Still, I didn't want him to go to school blind and be handed the news there. I didn't want him to think it was something we wouldn't share with him, wouldn't think significant enough to tell him. So I tried. 

I told him a very bad man had been killed and people were very happy. That his name was Osama bin Laden and he'd done horrible things. What kind of things, mommy? He's what's called a terrorist. What's a terrorist, mommy? Someone who kills other people because they don't believe what he believes. Are there more terrorists that are still alive? Could terrorists kill me, mommy?

I stammered, I skirted, and I sent him off to school with his head full of questions and not many answers. Perhaps his teachers will do a better job than I at explaining what seems like the unexplainable, but I know there will be more questions and more answers for me to try and formulate -- both for myself and for him.

Many an expert will surely come out now with suggestions, scripts, and advice on the "right" things to tell our kids, and there's plenty of existing information that came in the wake of 9/11 about talking to kids about terrorism that can be helpful. Among tips from The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology:

  • Create a time and place for children to ask their questions. Don't force children to talk about things until they're ready.
  • Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems directly or indirectly related to current events.
  • Remember that children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to events. They learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
  • Coordinate information between home and school. Parents should know about activities and discussions at school. Teachers should know about the child's specific fears or concerns.

All good advice, but the bottom line is that there really are no "right" things to do when it comes to something that at its core is so very, very wrong.

What are you telling your children about the death of Osama bin Laden?


Image via Mike "Dakinewavamon" Klein/Flickr

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