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Parent Imperfect: Bin Laden's Death and My Kids

Gathering the family 'round the TV for the news of Osama bin Laden's killing leaves one mom with tugs of unease.

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, I failed at the balancing act of being hooked to the TV news (with heart, mind, soul) and trying to shield my 2- and 5-year-old children (heart, mind, soul) from the screen. There wasn’t anyone else to help distract the kids. I couldn’t, no I couldn’t stop watching...

Oh s***, I recall feeling in the thick stew of emotions, is it really that bad for kids to watch airplanes crashing into buildings? Do I lie: "This is a grown-up style video game." Do I try for some version of the truth: "This is a really bad thing that happened far away. You’re safe."

What did I do? I aimed for the truth.

Sunday night, my now 12-year-old son called out from the living room, where, last I saw, he was watching the Simpson’s. "Mom, come here."

"I’m busy," I answered while smashing empty milk containers and cereal boxes into the overflowing recycling bin.

"No, you should come here," he insisted. "It’s a big news thing. It’s on all the channels."

My heart jumped. Earthquakes. Tornados. Tsunamis. "They killed that Osama bin Laden guy," my son said as I grabbed the remote.

And again, I was hooked. And again, a stew of emotions. 

This time I actually insisted my kids watch the TV, or at least listen to the president’s speech. "Why do I have to? This is getting boring," my son said. He and his sister noticed my tears.

"To learn about history and the world. As they happen. This is important," I said, as I searched for compelling words, not only for their understanding, but for mine.

We watched. We listened. The kids fidgeted. I attempted to explain the significance of what we were hearing and seeing, uncertain, really, just what they understood of 9/11. 

Footage of bin Laden making his way down a rocky path; rifle over his shoulder; brown eyes peering into camera, hair blowing. Footage of President Obama at the podium, dignified and intent. Footage of cheering, chanting crowds outside the White House and at Ground Zero.

"This was a really dangerous guy who killed people and was at war with Americans and helped plan the 9/11 attacks; a terrorist," I said. "He’d been hiding from us for a long time."

I channel surfed the news coverage, as I tend to do, curious about the punditry and spins, the details. "He wasn’t in a cave but a palace," my son offered after I’d left the room momentarily to answer the phone, proud of his new knowledge base.

In a dream, I am reaching to cover my son's ears as we hear a commentator say Osama's son, or was it one his sons, was killed in the firefight. Or did I really do this? 

After Obama finished, I let the kids off the hook, back to their Facebook pages and YouTubes. But I stayed glued. Something was bothering me. Something is still bothering me.

Like that September almost 10 years ago when I was torn between being a mom and a curious world citizen, I am struggling with parenting unease.

While I utterly understand the real and symbolic "successes" of U.S. forces finding and killing Osama bin Laden, and the visceral relief this brings especially to those who have suffered at his hand, is killing someone ever a success that warrants celebrating? The cheering and flag-waving. The joy. Is this what I want to teach my kids?

I am faltering once again.

They’ve grown up in a world of "use your words." Of ; talking things over is more effective than hitting, kicking, spitting or throwing a rock. Violence begets violence. Don’t hit back.

I know not all parents buy these softer, gentler approaches to anger, but I’m glad I do.

Oh sure, my kids have some sense of the death penalty, of punishment for crimes, of consequences, justice, innocence and guilt. I haven’t shielded them from television shows, movies or discussions about cops, criminals, courts or jail. Nor have they been shielded from at least the images and reports of war; of bombings and explosions, destruction and death. We talk about this stuff.

But these deaths, even when happening to bad guys or the enemy, are usually treated with somber seriousness. Not jubilation.

Now, what do I tell my kids?

"If you are a really, really bad terrorist who killed thousands of people, the world celebrates your death, and this killing is cause for pride. Pin an American flag to your T-shirt."

So mom, they may ask, this means some killing is good?

Is it?

And so I ask you, fellow parents, pacifists and pro-military, religious and atheist, directly affected by 9/11 or touched from afar, what are you saying to your kids?  

Paula Sugarman May 06, 2011 at 03:18 PM
Kate, I too was surprised by the celebrations on the night of Osama bin Laden's death. I can't judge the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 for feeling relief and even happiness at the closing of a disastrous chapter in American history. But the jubilation that ensued in Washington DC felt a lot like putting heads on pikes. To me, it brings Americans down to the level of the bad guys. Like you, I don't know how to explain that behavior to our children.
Catherine (Kate) Rauch May 07, 2011 at 04:14 PM
Thanks for your comment. I sympathize with the mixed emotions.

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