In the three weeks since Osama bin Laden was killed, there have surfaced a number of resources offering helpful guidance on how best to explain what happened to inquiring children. I have also seen blogs, articles and discussions in which the appropriateness of the celebratory mood was debated.
In a recent NY Times editorial, a professor of psychology, in drawing a connection between people’s desire to collectively celebrate to the desires of bees, ants and termites to collectively come together as a group, called the rejoicing, “good, healthy and altruistic.”
There has been little input, however, on a child’s perspective. Numerous parents have told me that their children felt confused and upset by the demonstrations of delight in response to bin Laden’s death. My son certainly had his own opinion.
Driving my son home from school, I was listening to a talk-radio station. The host was expressing her mixed feelings over the joyful reactions to bin Laden’s death. She invited listeners to call in with their views.
“Mom, can I have your phone?” I heard from the back seat.
“Why?” I asked.
My son responded, “I want to call in.”
He did get through to the station, but, reconsidering at the last minute, hung up. I asked what he was going to say.
Recanting a quote I must have spouted some time ago probably in response to a sibling battle, he replied, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
I asked what else he wanted to say. He said he just wants to live in a world in which people do not need to kill someone.
When I asked one Newtown seventh grade student her feelings, she shared that she too was bothered by the celebrations. Despite being old enough to understand the gravity of bin Laden’s actions, she did not understand why people would celebrate death regardless of what the person had done.
“Why is it so good...are things better now?” she inquired.
Another 14-year-old Newtown resident said he felt it was appropriate to celebrate at the locations in which the attacks took place, such as in Washington, DC and Ground Zero in New York. He did, however, share that he was now worried about retaliation by the terrorists.
Newtown mom, Debbie Holmes, made a point to keep her fourth grader away from the news. She was therefore taken aback when her child came home and shared that the teacher had brought the news up in class remarking that he was “happy they got the bad guy.”
“I was upset as a parent,” commented Debbie. "Even though the story is all over I think 4th grade is to young to be exposing them to this kind of news. As a parent, I was upset to see the celebration of someone being harmed. I think it sends a bad message. At home I was keeping them away from this news and was surprised that they learned about it in school.”
Local clinical psychologist Dr. Dana Martinez has had extensive experience working with and counseling numerous families and children.
"Adults had complex psychological reactions regarding Osama's death,” remarked Dr. Martinez. “Shock, disbelief, happiness, relief, fear, disgust... Their reactions were in response to the horrific events of 9-11 and knowing that somebody who caused terrible misery was killed.
But how can children respond to the public celebration of death, especially without fully understanding the extent of his crimes? Death is a difficult concept for children to understand. They know that killing is abhorred and death is usually mourned. So, the idea of celebrating a death is contrary to everything they have been taught!
Death coupled with the concept of justice is foreign to children and it is difficult for them to internalize why some deaths are tragic and bin Laden's death is seen as a happy event by some people.
As for what parents can do to help, Dr. Martinez offers these thoughts:
“It is important to give children simple, clear information in small quantities and with little detail while remaining available to answer their questions as they processes everything. Highlighting that people are not celebrating Osama's death as much as they are just happy he can’t hurt people anymore is an important distinction.”