Talking With Children About Osama Bin Laden
The media coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death is very confusing for children. On the one hand, it's a death, which we usually think of as sad and scary. On the other hand, people are celebrating in the streets as if we'd just won a big sporting event. Most adults feel relieved that the leader of Al-Qaeda is no longer a threat, but we worry about possible reprisals. For the people who were touched personally by the events of Sept. 11, Bin Laden's death may bring a sense of justice or closure, but it also probably evokes sadness, because his death doesn't bring back the loved ones they lost.
People are meaning-making creatures. We don't just experience events, we also make inferences about what they mean to us personally and about the world in general. A very important role for parents is to try to place events in context for our children. One way to do this is to talk about values.
Which values we emphasize depends on our particular family, but here are some possibilities: We could talk about the COURAGE that those navy seals showed in going into that compound at great personal risk. We could talk about COMPASSION for the people that Bin Laden hurt and their families. We could also talk about TOLERANCE. Bin Laden is not representative of how most Islamic people think, feel, or act. I think it takes a different kind of courage to fight against hatred and bigotry. With my own children, because I found the celebrations very disturbing, I talked about how I don't believe that any death--even Bin Laden's--is a cause for rejoicing. We can feel relieved and even grateful, but it's not something to celebrate.
So, how can you talk to your child about Bin Laden?
ASK FIRST. Start by asking what your child has heard. You may be able to clarify misunderstandings or offer reassurance. Even if you've tried to limit your child's exposure to media, your child may have seen or heard things at school or from friends.
LIMIT EXPOSURE. Use your judgment about how much immediacy your child can handle. Immediacy means how "in your face" the information is. Most children could handle a caring adult saying something like, "Brave soldiers killed a dangerous man to help keep the world safer." Hearing a more detailed account would be more immediate. Even more immediate would be seeing pictures or video footage. These can be much more frightening to children.
FOLLOW YOUR CHILD'S LEAD about how much to talk. Answer your child's questions in a matter-of-fact way, but keep in mind that children's worlds are small. If your child seems more interested in tonight's soccer game than world events, that's fine.
EMPHASIZE PERSONAL SAFETY. Sometimes pictures can get through to children better than all of our adult words. I live in the New York area, and I remember a young girl came to see me around Sept. 11, frightened about "What if Bin Laden does this?" or "What if Bin Laden does that?" At the time, we didn't know what was going to happen, so I couldn't honestly tell her, "Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
So, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a small stick figure at the bottom. "This is you," I told her. "Let's talk about who's in charge of keeping you safe." She said her parents, so I drew stick figures to represent them. Then she said her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, so I drew more stick figures above those. Then she said the police and firefighters, so I drew stick figures with hats. Then she said the military, so I drew stick figures with crew cuts. We worked our way up to the President--a stick figure with a flag. What this girl was left with was an image of layer upon layer of adults, standing between her and danger.
FIND WAYS TO TAKE CHILD-SIZED ACTIONS. Most of us feel better when we can do something about a problem, so a final thought about talking with your child about Bin Laden's death is to try to come up with a child-sized way to take action. This could mean writing a letter to a government official or an article for a school newspaper. It could mean sending a care package to a military person serving ove