Last week I read Peter Hartlaub's piece, Telling your kids that Osama bin Laden is dead, on SFGate.com. Peter is a well-known San Francisco journalist who also writes "The Poop" -- a parenting blog for SFGate, the online affiliate to The San Francisco Chronicle.
In his blog post, Peter asked some interesting questions about how to feed the news President Obama gave us about killing Osama bin Laden to your (young) children, “Do you get proactive and have an Osama bin Laden is dead discussion?” he asked. “Do you undergo a news blackout in your house? Or do you sit back and wait to see if they ask?”
One approach Peter didn’t mention was this, “Do you ask your child what they would do if they had to stop a bad guy or a bully who wants to hurt other people?” Most young children already know the “bad guy vs. good guy” plot very well from everything they’re fed in our culture of fairy tales, countless Disney movies, and massive amounts of consumer branding.
And even though I liked Peter’s approach about being honest and answering your children’s questions without telling them the gory details about Osama bin Laden and his death, I digress... I would much rather discuss the birth of the new robins in our backyard. Cowardice maybe, but my children are four and seven and in their world baby robins hatching out of tiny sky-blue eggs right above their heads (the robin’s nest is tucked under our roof atop a drainage pipe) is still a “headliner.” Literally.
Last week, however, I did raise some serious questions to my younger child, my son, who is always quick to tell me exactly what he would do in any situation. He also recently revealed in his preschool "All About Me" book his secret wish: a gun for his fifth birthday. Mmm hmmm.
I decided to use The Incredible Hulk movie with Edward Norton as a segway into the topic, probably not the best use of analogy, but something I knew was still fresh in his mind from an episode that played out in our house just a few hours before President Obama came on television to announce that bin Laden was dead.
We were about to sit down to a “family” movie when I went to get something from another room and left my husband in charge of putting on Fantasia. When I came back into the living room, I found them all watching The Incredible Hulk on cable. Uh… Okay. How it went from Walt Disney’s Special Edition of Fantasia to The Incredible Hulk is still not quite clear to me. The explanation my husband gave was, “It’s The Hulk,” which sounded a lot like, “Everybody loves The Hulk, Honey... Duh.”
“Come on, Mama, it’s The Hulk,” my son reiterated. Even my Disney on Ice daughter forgot all about Fantasia and the dance of the sugar plum mushrooms she loves so much, “I'm not scared, Mom. It’s just pretend.”
After a few very long stink-eye glares, my husband eventually switched back to the DVD player and Fantasia played for the next hour, much to my son’s chagrin. But, he also loves Mickey Mouse so he settled down pretty quick… funny how an animated mouse from the 1930’s and a giant green monster-man, dodging grenades, can balance each other out.
So, last week, after contemplating Telling your kids that Osama bin Laden is dead, this is the discussion I had with my four and a half year-old:
“So, did you like The Incredible Hulk movie Papa let you watch yesterday?”
“Yeah, I love The Hulk.”
“So, was The Hulk the good guy or the bad guy?”
“It's The Hulk, Mama… he’s a superhero!”
“Then why were the soldiers trying to hurt him?”
“They were bad soldiers and they were ruining the city.”
“Oh… So, what would you do if a bad soldier was trying to hurt someone or ruin your city?”
“I’d just punch him in the nose.”
“What if that didn’t work and he kept trying to hurt people, innocent people who weren’t doing anything wrong. Then what would you do?”
“I’d karate chop him.”
“But, what if that didn’t work and you really had to stop the bad guy, or even kill the bad guy, to stop him from hurting more people?”
I didn’t want to use the word, but out it came... Up until that moment, I had said to my son that “kill” was an awful word and that I never wanted to hear him say it again after overhearing him use it on the playground while playing Star Wars.
Up until that moment, I had thought that avoiding violent words was the best thing to do when teaching my son about compassion and responsibility – the best way to handle complex lessons about the stinging reality of his future world, a globe spinning with mixed messages and very real guns and ammunition. Then all of a sudden I found myself asking him about killing someone, “the bad guy,” realizing that with that suggestion I was potentially raising a boy who might become one himself… After all, the night before he was embracing graphic military warfare, cheering on The Hulk and bullets and firebombs for ten high-definition minutes. I squeezed my hands shut and braced for what would come out of his mouth next.
“Mama… then I’d just call the police, and they would take him down to jail.”
It’s a Disney ending, but I am mercifully relieved to hear my son choose it over the alternative.