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Parents struggle with how to talk to kids about bin Laden's killing

Published: Thursday, May. 5, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, May. 6, 2011 - 2:40 pm

The killing of Osama bin Laden has dominated the news for three days, and with it images of celebration. For parents struggling to explain the events to their children, the public rejoicing - and subsequent backlash against it - has added another layer of complexity to an already difficult task.

Kids who were too young to know what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, are now old enough to ask why their country would kill a man - and then cheer.

How to explain joy over death?

"It's a difficult conversation," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, a Land Park mother with a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.

She told her children that the ideal way of resolving conflicts is through peaceful measures, but that bin Laden presented an extreme exception.

"We've talked about very evil situations in the world like World War II and Hitler, and this is a situation like that, from our perspective," Holmes-Gen said.

"We've tried to express that we see all the cheering in the streets and that's not our way to deal with this information, but we understand other people feel differently."

The conversation unfolded differently in Kellie Randle's house when her children came home from school this week angry that their classmates had criticized them for cheering when they felt they were being patriotic.

Randle, who has three children and lives in Sierra Oaks, said her family celebrated together Sunday night when President Barack Obama announced that bin Laden was dead. They were excited by television footage of young Americans pouring into the streets to rejoice.

"That was the most powerful, proud-to-be-an-American moment that we have had in a long time," Randle said. "Then things changed in the next day or two."

Her kids came home from middle school and told Randle their debate class had argued over the ethics of celebrating bin Laden's death.

"They're shocked and angry that people would bring it up as a moral issue," Randle said. "Some of (my son's) friends said, 'It's immoral that they're cheering in the streets.' And my son said, 'It's immoral that they're trying to kill us every day of our lives.' "

Parents should help their children sort through the emotional aftermath of the latest turn in the war on terror, said Kathy Green, a counselor who works with families for a Sacramento group called People Reaching Out.

"Parents have to get clear on how they feel about their beliefs before they can talk to their kids," she said. "A lot of parents are confused."

Green suggests that parents handle questions about bin Laden, his role in 9/11 and his killing this week by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos the same way they should handle other difficult issues: First, by turning the question back on the children and asking them what they think.

"And then really listen to what they say, so you can clear up any misperceptions or fears or vulnerabilities they might have," she said.

Green also suggests that parents give kids only as much information as they need to answer their questions.

"You'll know they're satisfied when they change the subject or walk away," she said.

Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel, a local family therapist, said parents should consider their child's developing sense of morality in thinking about how to talk about the news.

"A 12-year-old can think at a much higher level, has a heightened sense of right and wrong and can see complexities a lot. An 8-year-old thinks in more black-and-white terms," he said.

"A 12-year-old might say, 'Killing is wrong but in this case I can sorta understand why,' where an 8-year-old is going to grapple with the complexities of that."

Kelli Wheeler, an Arden-area mother who writes the Momservations blog about parenting, said she felt she yanked away some of her children's innocence when she told them Monday morning about bin Laden's death. She wanted them to hear the news from her, before they went to school.

Until Monday, her kids knew nothing about 9/11. They were younger than 2 and watching "Sesame Street's" Elmo when terrorists struck America that day.

In her lesson over breakfast, Wheeler explained the attacks and the decadelong hunt for the man who led them.

"It was so very sad that I had to explain words like 'terrorist' and 'hijack' and 'suicide bomber'," Wheeler said. "There were so many things they just couldn't fathom."

She showed them a book about 9/11 and then a recording of Obama's speech announcing bin Laden's death.

"Then I showed them the pictures of people celebrating and that made it less scary because you see people cheering and waving American flags," Wheeler said.

Many of the revelers Sunday night were college-age students whose youthful faces made an impression on Wheeler's children.

"They said, 'Why are kids celebrating?' And I explained that their world was changed forever when they were about your age."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Laurel Rosenhall

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