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Talking to Kids about Osama Bin Laden

Updated at the bottom

On September 11th, I worked in a school.  We gathered all of the students, from sixth grade to twelfth grade in the theater to give the news and then broke into smaller rooms until parents could arrive for pick-up.  I had everyone in my room write down the thoughts passing through their head at the moment, and I collected them, xeroxed them, and gave out a copy to all of the middle schoolers who had waited in my room.  I told them that it would be a way to remember where they were, who they were with, what they were thinking.  In that moment in time, trying to contain and comfort preteens, creating a written time capsule seemed like the only way to fill that space.  All of us were too numb, too distraught, too scared to do much more than silently jot down disjointed thoughts.

The students from pre-K to fifth grade were in a different building on the campus.  They went into lockdown in their classrooms and while the teachers quietly whispered from room to room, they continued with lessons until they were released early from school.  Years later, those students expressed how terrible it felt to be cognizant that something was wrong, something was happening, and to not be told even in age-appropriate terms.  They could tell the adults were upset.  They could see students out the window walking across the campus, crying.  Not being told made them distrust the teachers; made them wonder what they weren’t being told.

And wouldn’t we feel the same way if we knew someone had information and they weren’t telling us for our own good?  Children are human beings just as much as adults.

I told the twins about Osama Bin Laden when they woke up this morning.  I explained that there was this terrible man (“Worse than Darth Vader?  What about Voldemort?  Was he worse than Voldemort?”) who had been hiding for almost 10 years, and we finally caught him last night.  I stopped short at telling them that we had actually killed Bin Laden because I didn’t know how to explain that without opening the door to a new room of greyness.

I didn’t tell them what he had done except to explain that he was worse than Voldemort in the sense that he was real.  That he had hurt at least 50,000 people; again, not ready to explain that when I said “hurt,” I mostly meant “killed.”  They asked if this meant that there would be no more wars — after all, isn’t that how life continues in Harry Potter’s world?  Get rid of the bad guy and all bad things stop — and I had to explain there probably would be wars in the future.  That the world was both a safer and equally dangerous place because of this.

In Judaism, we don’t celebrate the death of an enemy.  It’s part of the Pesach seder, therefore, that idea was fresh in their minds.  I told them they might see adults happy today, but what we were celebrating wasn’t about Osama Bin Laden.  We weren’t celebrating the fact that we hurt him.  We were celebrating that we could give closure to the families he hurt.  We were celebrating that he couldn’t do anything bad again.  I made the celebration about us vs. being happy over what the enemy was losing.

After they each had a pre-school cuddle, we went downstairs to breakfast and packing bags and making lunches.  They went to kindergarten as if this were an ordinary day.  I went home and held my breath.  One day, I’m going to have to explain September 11th to them.  I’m going to have to explain the Holocaust.  I’m going to have to explain that J.K. Rowling didn’t dream up Voldemort from scratch, that he is an amalgamation of all the evil that exists in the world; that inhabits very real people.  That Osama Bin Laden was human, just like we’re human.  Which makes it all the more horrific.

It is easy to compartmentalize evil robots and evil aliens — we’re not cut from the same cloth and we can use that as an explanation.  It is something quite different to wrap your mind around the fact that it was a choice.  That he chose to kill people not because it’s coded in his DNA, part of who he is as something inhuman, but because he wanted to do it.

I would like to keep them like those students, closed up in the room, pretending that we can keep them oblivious because I do believe that sometimes, ignorance is bliss.  But hearing how the students processed being kept in that glass bubble — being able to see out and know something was happening, yet unable to hear it or get close — made me pop the one around the ChickieNob and Wolvog.


After school, I asked the twins if their teacher had spoken about Osama Bin Laden with the class.  They both gave a nervous laugh and told me that she hadn’t.  I asked if any of the kids in their class were talking about it, and the Wolvog stared out the window, thinking.  “We’re the only ones who seemed to know,” he admitted.  “Except for probably the 5th graders.  But they don’t talk to us.”

Which led us to a final talk about why parents might not want to talk about Osama Bin Laden with their children, and how that was fine too — there was no right way or wrong way to approach a topic.

All of my fears that others would get to the kids first were unfounded this time.  They probably could have skated through the next few days oblivious.

The only mark left behind was a casual remark later in the evening by the Wolvog that his imaginary friend Jancefer has a friend whose father died recently in the war.  How recently?  Sunday.  This friend’s mother had also died a while back (“She was old.  Like over 200.”), and this current military death left this imaginary person an orphan.  The Wolvog relayed this to me from the back seat, his voice breaking as he repeated several times that this imaginary boy had lost his father.

The questions, the imaginary friends living out their worst fears — it’s all in the vein of trying on dress-up clothes, trying to see how it feels, rolling around in it uncomfortably.  And I’m just grateful that in their current life, it’s all just play-acting.  It’s all just practice and pretend.  Because it’s dawning on them that for some very real families, that truth hits closer to home.


1 Mali { 05.02.11 at 6:37 pm }

You’re so right. Kids know when something’s not right. They know when they’re being kept in the dark. And they know – even at this age – that nasty things happen in the world. They get bullied at school, they know about wars. So telling them gently seems to me to be the only way to deal with it. And I particularly liked the way you explained why people might be happy today. I for one was uncomfortable at the sight of cheering (gloating perhaps?) crowds. Surely this is a time to contemplate what was done by this man, and in the name of vengeance too.

2 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.02.11 at 6:39 pm }

Yes. We must talk to them. Trust is more important than comfort. I love that your instinct was to write and feel and do a time capsule. Those were lucky kids.

I saw this on Facebook: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

3 Tigger { 05.02.11 at 6:43 pm }

It’s also so very hard to explain because, well, sometimes we as adults don’t even understand. We can’t comprehend how another human being can be so very evil. At least, that’s my POV. I “get” that the bad guys aren’t always evil for being evil’s sake – from their POV they are doing something right and WE are the evil ones. I still don’t understand how they justify it, though. I am very glad that my son is only 4 weeks old and that I won’t have to explain this to him for a long time – it’s something he’ll probably learn about in history class and hopefully he’ll be in the headspace to understand.

Meanwhile, thank you. Thank you for not treating your children as “too young to understand”, and for treating them as small adults. You may not have told the full truth (caught vs killed, hurt vs killed) but it’s in their language, something they can understand. You are a wonderful mother and role model for the rest of us – I can only hope I do half as well with Cole.

4 a { 05.02.11 at 7:41 pm }

It’s a common idea – protecting people from news that would be upsetting. But it never works out as expected, and the “protected” can usually be counted upon to be upset that they were left out of the loop.

I didn’t discuss Bin Laden with my daughter because she has no frame of reference for it and there was really no point for her. But if she asked, I would tell her that he was someone who hated Americans and that he would not be able to cause any more trouble.

5 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 05.02.11 at 7:51 pm }

Unfortunately not everyone subscribes to the policy of not celebrating the death of an enemy.

6 HereWeGoAJen { 05.02.11 at 8:14 pm }

I think what you did was exactly right. 🙂

7 Peg { 05.02.11 at 8:15 pm }

I told the kids first thing this morning. I wanted them to hear it from me first and not kids at school. I wanted to be able to explain it to them in ways they could understand. I did shield our 4 year old as much as possible and not use words like “dead” and “killing” around him to upset him. I work in homeland security and anti-terrorist professionally and it was important for me to explain to them what happened. Strangely, our 11 year old niece was concerned someone would try to get his body in the sea and take his dna to clone him and then he’d come back.

8 TasIVFer { 05.02.11 at 8:41 pm }

Gosh, I read posts like this sometimes and think how complicated motherhood is; would I be able to come up with the right way to discuss something like this? It also makes me think of the passage of time. Obviously being in a different country I’m experiencing this differently from you. But what struck me yesterday was reading a newspaper article and a 22-year-old was talking about how he felt about Bin Laden’s death. I suddenly realised that he was 12 when the WTC and Pentagon were struck. He’s grown up with it. And for your children it will be something that happened in history. It still impacts them, but they have always lived in a world where this is a part of history, not a current event we saw unfold. Like we live the holocaust through history books as well as friends’ and family’s experiences. It would be lovely if one day it was remembered to them as something that happened in the past which was a horrible event the world learned from, rather than something they still need to deal with.

9 Kymberli { 05.02.11 at 8:54 pm }

In this house, we always tend to the business of our morning routine with Robin and Company on the TV (most of the time Robin’s a bit to cackly for my personal taste, but I like my bad world news with a dose of sugar, just the same). I wasn’t going to flip to Nickelodeon this morning for the sake of avoiding a difficult topic with my kids.

We talked about it. While I didn’t delicately tiptoe around the issue of death (not even with the little one, who I’m sure doesn’t fully comprehend what it means – I don’t think *I do,* for that matter), we did address the issue of not celebrating the death of the man who was bin Laden, but rather celebrating the closure that it provided for the families who were and still are directly affected by his actions. They were somber with the understanding that there will always be a “bad guy.” For me, this was the perfect opportunity to teach them about what hate looks like and how we can rise above it by being graceful even when those who’ve wronged us finally have to face their consequences.

10 Ellen K. { 05.02.11 at 9:58 pm }

Hmmm. Yesterday, around sunset, I noticed a long, single gray cloud moving quickly across the eastern sky, and I thought of Voldemort. The cloud was that weird. And now it seems a little eerie.

Anyway, talking to small children really is complicated. I & N aren’t that at the stage where I have to explain important things, but I practice a bit. You handled it very well.

11 Erica { 05.02.11 at 10:40 pm }

Thanks so much for this. I think you approached this conversation with a lot of sensitivity and good sense, and I’m grateful that you shared it with us, too. I can understand a lot of the celebrating, but I also feel sad to see it.

12 Bea { 05.03.11 at 6:28 am }

I agree with JK Rowling (and you) on this one: that children can deal with more than we often give them credit for, that withholding information usually does more harm than good, and that being frank – whilst at the same time reassuring – is usually the best way to go. My personal experience – being the child from whom information is withheld – confirms me in this.

We didn’t have any explicit talk with PB (at 3yo) but he was in the room when we went to watch the news story and if he had been remotely interested or at all paying attention I would definitely have given him the summary and fielded any questions. Since I was having trouble getting past the sentence, “There’s an important news story we want to watch,” before his attention wandered to something more engaging, as in, anything and everything else, I admit I did give up on anything further… I guess there’re still situations where you just have to skip over things rather than force the issue…


13 Gail { 05.03.11 at 8:31 am }

I was teaching 5th grade on 9-11 and we were not permitted to tell our students what had happened either. It was so difficult to know that these kids were going to get on a bus with middle and high school students who HAD been told what happened and not be able to say anything. We had a lot of parents who were angry that their children found out from other children instead of from the trusted adults in their lives. I still think it was a bad decision on the part of the administration, even now that 10 years have passed and I am no longer a teacher.

14 MeAndBaby { 05.03.11 at 9:02 am }

I agree – you are a wonderful mother and role model for the rest of us.

15 Jen { 05.03.11 at 11:31 am }

This is a great post. My 8 year old came home yesterday and saw bin Laden’s picture on tv. She said that her teacher told the class about that man. I asked her what did she say? She said the teacher said he was dead. I asked what else did the teacher say about him? She kind of laughed and said “just that he’s dead!” I was shocked. I hope she just wasn’t paying attention and that the teacher didn’t really just say this guy is dead!! 😛

Thanks for giving me some great insight as to how to better approach this topic with her!!

16 Somewhat Ordinary { 05.03.11 at 11:45 am }

Smooch is only 3 and he really didn’t show any interest as I watched the news. I do know that he takes in way more than I realize he does so I said to him “today something happened that our Country has been waiting for.” I paused to see if there was a reaction and then I planned on going into something about a bad man being captured, but he simply said “oh, okay” and went back to playing with his trucks.

Now give him a beautiful princess riding off with her new prince in a carriage and he will be mesmerized!

17 loribeth { 05.03.11 at 2:02 pm }

Mel, I found your story about the different way the different age groups were treated, & how they reacted, really interesting. Kids do know, & they’re going to talk about it among themselves, so I think you were wise to have a word with the twins before they headed off to school.

When I was 9 years old, in the fall of 1970, one of the more traumatic events in Canadian history took place, referred to in our history as “the October Crisis”: a radical separatist group in Quebec, the FLQ, kidnapped & killed a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte — he was strangled & his body stuffed into the trunk of a car. (They also kidnapped a British diplomat, James Cross, but he was later released.) The prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, invoked the War Measures Act & suspended civil liberties — a little bit like what happened after 9/11 in the States. It was quite a tense & frightening time. Nobody explained what was going on to us kids, but nobody really sheltered us from it either, or tried to direct our thinking. And we certainly talked about it among ourselves. The dad of one of my friends was an RCMP officer, & she told us (with the relish that only a 9-year-old can muster) that Laporte had been beheaded. We were horrified, but took her word as truth — after all, her dad was in the RCMP, so she must know, right?? ; ) It wasn’t until I was older & read more about the crisis that I realized she had just been feeding us a line. Wouldn’t it have been better for an adult to sit down with us & ask us what we knew & what we thought, & set us straight with the facts?

18 Katie { 05.03.11 at 8:33 pm }

I was in high school during 9/11, and I watched the entire thing live. Our principal actually came onto the loudspeaker and told teachers to turn on their TVs as we watched the second plane hit. After the towers fell, they basically told us we could go home if we had the means. My mom picked me up, and she took my brother out of elementary school, too. He was 10 at the time, but had no idea what was going on. The teachers were asked not to say anything. But when we got home, my mom did turn on the TV and let him watch some of the coverage (while also explaining to him in her best motherly speak what was happening).

I asked her years later why she let us watch while so many parents didn’t. She said, “As a kid, I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey on live television. I turned out fine. It was a historic moment.”

19 mash { 05.04.11 at 5:32 am }

What you said made me want to post this quote for you that one of my facebook friends posted this morning:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

20 loribeth { 05.04.11 at 3:52 pm }
21 Kir { 05.07.11 at 8:32 am }

That quote from MLK is exactly how I feel about this…that yes it’s good he’s gone but hate and evil are still in our world and that makes me so sad and still scared. I also know that sooner than later I will have to explain this to the boys…and I pray for the right words.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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