Ahhh, the innocence of youth. Having young children is a constant reminder that the world is full of light and goodness. Their eyes are filled with wonder at every new experience. Their hearts, for the most part, are pure (except perhaps when they succumb to the occasional primal urge to snatch a friend’s toy or stick a foot out a little too far, thereby tripping an unsuspecting sibling). Minor grapples aside, they are “the innocents” and, as a grown-up, I often look with envy on the blissful ignorance of childhood.
But recently, I had the unfortunate experience of raining on my son’s happy parade. It was a moment, a casual conversation that came and went. We moved on to a different subject…but were indelibly changed.
Four days ago, we were eating dinner and I had the Democratic National Convention playing on TV. Obama, Mr. Usually-Cool-as-a-Cucumber, was fired up, reveling in one of the crowning achievements of his presidency. “Osama bin Laden is dead!” he proudly proclaimed. Deafening cheers filled the convention hall.
My son looked puzzled. “Who is Osama bin Laden?”
I paused. I couldn’t remember what he knew and didn’t know.
Ok here we go: Good & Evil 101. “Oh he’s a really evil man that hurt a lot of people.”
“But what did he do?” I was clearly not going to get off easy.
Deep breath. “Remember when we watched those two planes hit the buildings on TV?”
“No.” Blank stare.
I must’ve kept it from him. Shielded him from the annual memorial footage. Quickly changed the channel when I heard him skipping toward the room.
My heart sank. In too deep to turn back. “Well, 11 years ago, on September 11…” I stuttered my way through an account of what happened. He sat there, trying to process.
“…so when they ran the planes through the buildings, they exploded and collapsed, killing thousands of people.”
His face went blank…and then contorted. Shock. Disbelief. Then he blurted out, “So President Obama had him killed?!”
Terror. In his face. And mine.
“773-202-LUUUNNNAA!” The goofy commercial cut through the tension like a knife through butter—smooth and easy. Phew! Pattern interrupt.
He spoke first. “Mommy on Wizard 101, I am this close to unlocking the next level. But first I need more crowns…” And just like that, he was back in the bubble.
For the past few days leading up to today—the anniversary of 9/11—TV news coverage of that fateful day has been in full effect. Yet he’s never mentioned anything since our conversation. He routinely stages epic battles with Pokemon and magic potions, but the archetypal themes of death and revenge played out in real life were far less palatable. Whether intentional avoidance or selective memory, I don’t know why he never brought it up again. But what I do know is this: it was a definite reality check.
The balloon will burst—if not today based on the brutality of war, perhaps on the playground thanks to a bully or under a bridge where a homeless person sleeps. It’s an ugly world out there and, try as we might to protect our kids from reality, there will be times when you have to face it head on. Times when there is no explanation for tragedy or cruelty or hatred. Times when you simply have no answer to the incessant questions “Why?”
So what can you do? Teach them to value every single day. Show them right from wrong. Don’t raise an ostrich. Give them wings. Fill them up with knowledge, but also enough belief in the goodness in people and the world—so there’s something to hang onto when times go dark. And let them hold onto the lightness. Or better yet, float away with them on occasion. They have much to learn about life…but also much to teach.