The importance of life is not lost in my seven-year-old son Johnny. He understands how it feels to lose a loved one (his grandpa passed away last year as well as an uncle). He realizes life is delicate as he’s seen violence on television and in movies, in video games and on the news. He understands that pain and fear and sadness come from death.
As a parent, I try my best to impress concepts of peace and respect for fellow man, defense of the innocent and most of all, the preservation of life. And in turn, murder has become a solemn, dark and evil idea in his mind; not unlike just about everyone else.
Death is nothing to celebrate...right?
Imagine his shock when the news showed people cheering like the Lions won the Super Bowl and neighbors were having “bin Laden death parties" down the street after he learned that a man with a long beard had been killed by the United States.
Uh-oh, time to clear up some contradictions. So, suddenly murder is a good thing?
Children have a tendency to see things in black and white; good and evil are distinctly different; God vs. the Devil, cops vs. robbers; the Wings vs. the Sharks. But as adults, we realize there is a lot more to it.
Terrorism is the perpetrating of acts and/or threats by someone or some group that employs terror as the main weapon in their arsenal. Terror, is the fear and anticipation that one feels leading up to an event or experience, where horror is the reaction, the disgust, shock and revulsion.
In practical terms, terror was when we were all afraid anthrax was going to show up in an unmarked letter in the mailbox or sprinkled from a plane over a festival. Horror was what we all felt on 9/11.
But my son Johnny didn’t experience 9/11. He doesn’t understand why terrorism exists. It’s easy to convince a child to root for our side, but when it comes to the complications of national security, military action and terrorism, these are concepts that are hard to grapple with for anyone, let alone a seven-year-old watching his country give three cheers for killing an enemy.
We can’t hide our children from everything and if we try to, we’ll only stifle their path to maturity. But how much of the real world is too much?
Johnny was in bed sleeping when the news was announced, but the next morning we had a brief talk over breakfast. I asked him: Who is Osama bin Laden? What is the al Qaida? What is terrorism? What happened on 9/11? He didn't know any answers.
I had to ask myself, 'are these things I want him to know about?' How do I put this in terms that he can understand? How can I put this in terms that don’t terrorize him? How do I explain the contradiction of preservation of life vs. national security? And how do I explain how it is determined that someone deserves to die?
I don’t have these answers. But these are questions that are delicate, the answers to which will undoubtedly have a great impression on my son’s childhood philosophy of the world around him.
But rather than face these questions head-on that morning, I simply told him not to talk about it at school. I do not see it as appropriate for a classroom of first-graders to be discussing the killing of Osama bin Laden or to be posing questions to an overwhelmed teacher about religion, terrorism, death and national security.
But part of growing up is asking questions and extending one’s knowledge. If we can’t leave it up to the teachers to handle, then as uncomfortable as conversations about such delicate topics can be with children, these are conversations that you can't avoid. Unless you want hearsay, rumors and the thoughts of someone else to fill your child’s head.