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Final Chapter: Talking to the Kids About Osama Bin Laden

You knew it was just a matter of time before the questions started in earnest.  Last night, I was flipping off the television after we watched our nightly 15 minutes of movie time, and in the moment between the DVD player shutting off and the television going dark, a flash of a rerun Daily Show played because the television was tuned to Comedy Central.

As we walked to their room, ChickieNob casually asked whose picture had been on the screen.

“That was Osama bin Laden,” I admitted.

“I actually knew that,” she said mysteriously.  “Where is he right now?”

We were standing in front of the mirror, both facing it, so I told her reflection, “He’s actually dead.  He died because when they went in to take him from the house, there was a battle and he died during it.”  I wanted to make it clear that this was related to war.  That if she did something we deemed “terrible” (such as, oh, I don’t know, sitting on her brother for the 11th time), the army wasn’t going to come busting into the house to take her down.

I watched her reflection in the mirror as well as the Wolvog’s, who had come up behind us at that moment after retrieving one of his stuffed animals from downstairs.  Both looked surprised at this development — that Osama bin Laden was dead.  The Wolvog tested out a response:

“Is that a good thing?  So now he really can’t come out and hurt people again?”

“It’s something that had to be done.  We never want to kill a person, but that can happen during a war when two people are fighting.”

We retired to their room so they could ask the rest of their questions.  Taking Tash’s advice (was it Tash’s advice?  I feel like I need to roundup all my posts about talking about death), I was careful to answer just the question asked and not elaborate.  And in doing so, the twins sort of naturally kept the idea of death mostly out of the conversation.  They asked what they needed answers for and we didn’t push anything extra.  Here’s what we spoke about:

  • Does Osama bin Laden always wear white? (he was wearing white in the picture on the screen): I’m not familiar with most of his wardrobe.
  • Will they show pictures of him dead? (I thought this was an interesting one in light of the announcement that the pictures would not be shown): No, President Obama promised today that they wouldn’t show pictures that would upset you.
  • Why won’t they show the pictures? Out of respect.  At the end of the day, he was a human being.  And we need to have a basic level of respect for all human beings — even ones who don’t treat us nicely.
  • Did he want to hurt kids? Yes.  He wanted to hurt everybody.
  • Did he ever hurt a kid? Yes.
  • Did he ever do anything bad?  Or did he just want to do bad things? (and this is where we first broached 9/11): Have you ever heard people talk about September 11th?  Before you were born, there was a scary day where he attacked two buildings in America.  And he hurt a lot of people that day.
  • Where were the buildings? One was in D.C. — that’s the Pentagon — and the other was in New York.
  • Was the New York one near Uncle R? No, he lives in a different part of the city.
  • Have I ever seen the New York one? (they’ve seen the Pentagon numerous times) No, because they’re not there anymore. (This answer brought about a long period of silence).  Do you know when Green Day sings, “and the towers fall?”  That’s what they’re talking about.  The day the towers fell — that these big buildings fell down.
  • What will happen to his family? I don’t know.  I don’t know where they are right now.
  • Are they sad? I am positive they are sad.
  • Are they bad guys too? I don’t really know what they think.  It’s important to remember that they didn’t choose to be in his family; they didn’t necessarily choose to be connected to him.  They shouldn’t be blamed because their dad made bad decisions just like you shouldn’t be blamed if I make a bad decision.  Maybe they think the same things he did, or maybe they were really upset that their dad wanted to do terrible things.  We don’t know them so we can’t say what they think.
  • And they’ll never show a picture of him dead and then I’ll see it and get scared? No, they’ll never show him dead and if they ever did, I would be very careful that none of us saw that picture.  President Obama is being respectful because he was someone’s baby — right?  Everyone has a mommy, and he was someone’s baby.  He was someone’s daddy.  He was a person to them and out of respect for his family, President Obama is not going to make them feel badly and show this picture.  Because they didn’t choose to have a son or father who acted like that.  It’s okay to be angry with Osama bin Laden, but we don’t hurt other people because we’re angry with bin Laden.

I wanted them to walk away from the conversation realizing that Osama bin Laden was just a man — not a robot with superpowers or a magical being who can utter words and kill you instantly — he was just a person.  A person who was born and a person who could die and a person who can’t come back (we didn’t broach the many-headed hydra theory since, you know, trying to keep them from crapping their pants in fear).

And therefore, he can be feared because some humans are damn scary, but our fears need to be in check because, again, he’s a human with human limitations.  And I also wanted them to see that he was a human, which meant that he made choices.  And he made some godawful ones.

And I wanted them to remember that he was a human and that we’re often interconnected in ways that we can’t control, and I want them to compartmentalize this person rather than apply his actions to many.  After all, one day I’m going to have to explain the Holocaust, and I don’t want them to apply their feelings about Hitler to all Germans any more than I want them to apply their feelings about Osama bin Laden to other people.

I wanted them to remember that he was a human to bring him down to the proper size.

So we focused the remainder of our conversation on the fact that he was human.  That his decisions are his own and he needs to accept consequences for his actions; just as much as my decisions are my own and I need to accept consequences.  And just as he shouldn’t have held me accountable for decisions that my government made — that he shouldn’t have wanted to hurt me since I wasn’t involved in those decisions — that we shouldn’t want to hurt anyone else just because they had something in common with Osama bin Laden.  Because if we do, we’re essentially doing what he did, which was paint humanity with a large, sloppy brush.

The questions ran out abruptly, and after about ten straight minutes of talking about him, they asked about our weekend plans, signaling that they were full.  Full of information.  And it was time for bed.

Posting this in case in can help anyone else with their future conversations.


1 MeAndBaby { 05.05.11 at 11:53 am }

Well done. I wish my kids and I could know you in person!

2 Katie { 05.05.11 at 12:53 pm }

You are a fantastic mom. I can’t imagine having better answers to those questions.

3 a { 05.05.11 at 12:54 pm }

You’re doing a great job of providing information without a side helping of fear or hysteria. I’m sure that is difficult considering that you were all a bit closer to the action on 9-11. I imagine that reactions to bin Laden’s death are stronger among people who have a more specific connection to those events.

4 luna { 05.05.11 at 2:05 pm }

I love their questions, and of course your responses and the focus on shared humanity. as you wrote before, it is too easy to vilify the villain when “they” are alien rather than one of “us” who have made poor choices. hell, even the dalai lama gave a quote about the necessity of consequences.

5 HereWeGoAJen { 05.05.11 at 2:37 pm }

Excellent job, Mel.

6 Tigger { 05.05.11 at 2:50 pm }

Wow! Impressive! I agree that it was wonderfully handled. They got what they needed, no more and no less. 🙂

7 Emily (Apron Strings) { 05.05.11 at 3:27 pm }

Well put, Mel. Well put. And if I had kids … or if my nieces or nephew asked me these same questions, I would have said exactly what you did.

8 It Is What It Is { 05.05.11 at 3:56 pm }

What a positively appropriate and rational discussion about a very difficult to understand (for even some adults) topic.

It will be interesting to see how/when it comes up again and in what way(s).

9 Esperanza { 05.05.11 at 4:09 pm }

Very well done. As some with a daughter who is too young to understand any of this yet I am taking so many, many notes on the level-headed and respectful way you communicate with your children. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us.

10 Queenie { 05.05.11 at 4:34 pm }

You are a really great mother.

I take issue with this thought, though: “And just as he shouldn’t have held me accountable for decisions that my government made — that he shouldn’t have wanted to hurt me since I wasn’t involved in those decisions.” But of course you were, because in a representative democracy, those people in power ARE us. Their decisions are OUR decisions. Their successes and failures are OUR successes and failures, and we all need to own that. Perhaps if we did, Congress wouldn’t be the nightmare that it is currently. We all need to own our bad things, like Guantanamo, if we ever want them to change, and we need to insist that our government does differently, does better. (But of course, he shouldn’t have wanted to hurt any of us, because that’s wrong and bad and inexcusable).

11 Kristin { 05.05.11 at 5:06 pm }

You handled that brilliantly.

12 Vee { 05.05.11 at 7:52 pm }

You are an awesome Mum, you teach me so much. Thanks.

13 Tara { 05.06.11 at 2:31 am }

Thank you for this.

14 Janey { 05.06.11 at 4:57 am }

I am in tears here. Not just over the thoughtful and considered way you handled this, but for all the children who will just be told, “We don’t talk about this.”

15 mash { 05.06.11 at 6:42 am }

What a great way to handle it! Wow. Life and who you are as a person is really so greatly defined by these short conversations we have with adults when we are kids. There ARE people who do bad things, and you can’t shelter kids from that, in fact they seem to be more than capable of living with that kind of understanding. But putting it across in such a way that it makes sense and allows them the freedom to stay open minded… that is a real talent. Well done!

16 Gil { 05.06.11 at 9:18 am }

Excellently done Mel! Kudos to you for handling it with honestly, intelligence and thoughtfulness. I try to do exactly the same with my teenage stepchildren. As they were growing up, they were around (and with us the day after Sept. 11) and they had tons of questions. I’ve been dealing with this sort of thing for years. It’s not easy, but honesty is the best policy, and always let the kids lead the conversation. You did GREAT! 🙂

17 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.06.11 at 10:57 am }

Because one of the keys to holding a war is to dehumanize, I love that your contribution to peace — with your kids and with all who read this post — is to humanize.

18 Heather { 05.06.11 at 11:30 am }

What a great conversation you had with you kids. I can only hope I will be able to have those sort of well thought conversations some day.

19 Paz { 05.07.11 at 1:51 am }

Geez, I had this discussion tonight with my 4-year old. I really can’t recall how it came up, but I explained how the world decided that he was bad and that they needed to stop him from trying to kill more people. His response was, So he is off the planet now? If someone is bad, can’t we kick them off the planet?

Yes, I guess we can. He is off the planet for being very bad and killing a lot of people and for having hate in his heart.

silence, and then, So, did he leave dead in a rocket ship?

OK, he is just 4. But, I like that. Bad peeps get expelled from the planet. Can’t you imagine the list?

20 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 05.07.11 at 6:46 pm }

I love your honesty.

21 Billy { 05.20.11 at 2:13 pm }

Thanks! I hope I won’t need to have such conversations with my girl, but for sure I can take some pointers! [I think the main one would be to understand when she had enough and stop (naturally I would carry on..) and to answer only what was asked.
And if I didn’t say – I loved reading how you talk to your kids about such issues.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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