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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?  

Everybody makes mistakes ... ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at emilier@patch.com.

pkt May 07, 2011 at 10:03 PM
Part 2 of my last rambling...there is an institution in Berkeley named Zaytuna Institute, where they are fostering an American Islam and they are 'raising' American imams, who understand the societies, speak English and who are Americans to lead these communities. This institutin is led by an American, white convert and there is also another one affiliated with it very popular in NoCal by the name of Suhaib Webb, also a convert and American, Al Azhar trained sheikh. In fact, Wael Ghonim the Google exec, the hero of the Egyptian revolution who Facebooked its mobilization was brought to the Silicon Valley two weeks ago by such affiliates and he spoke in a mosque and Stanford about democracy which Muslims want and are dying for just like we did, will and are. Next, the communities are battling fundamentalists themselves, but it is a very small number of crazy people. Yet the gov is not working with these groups or the Muslim communities as of yet to try TOGETHER to battle radicals. That makes me question their agenda. Especially, when in Europe they do have the aid of Muslim communities to do so. In the UK they British gov funds some Muslim led programs to do so. Two interesting efforts are Radical Middle Way and also The City Circle. I will break here as I have an aspiring twelve year old juggler in the front of me which I must applaud...I shall return!
pkt May 07, 2011 at 10:12 PM
RSG- I would also like to see a repaired post-Bush relationship, quite a few things are "repairing" in the region and policies are shifting, who knows? re your last paragraph: The Arab League postponed their meeting because they do not know where anyone or anything stands in the region in order to make decisions.
Del Price May 08, 2011 at 04:14 AM
Racism, sexism, other isms don't really get easier -- the impact is lessened though by being "in community" or with people who "get it". You form affinity groups. Or you find and connect with those whose values are similar. You keep up the dialogue. Or not.
pkt May 09, 2011 at 08:00 PM
Hello again- My children are always aware and supportive of the topics I am researching and they contribute amazing things. Today my 13 year old brought me this youtube video where children are shown a clip of the president's speech regarding bin Laden and their reaction, so I decided to post her contribution to the discussion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pkKNPEU8oc KIDS REACT to Osama bin Laden's Death TheFineBros
Catherine (Kate) Rauch May 09, 2011 at 08:02 PM
I found the NYT article fascinating, Caryl. And no, I didn't view it as making excuses for behavior, just exploring.

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