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Guest Thinkers

Bin Laden and the American Teen

How has growing up amidst the specter of war shaped the modern teenager? And how do we explain to the young why one man’s death is something to celebrate?

To this day, I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to go in to work on September 11, 2001. The second tower had just fallen, and there were rumors that another runaway jet might be headed for the White House. We were paralyzed with an unrecognizable fear, many of us for the first time in our lives. The rumors ran rampant and I couldn’t help but wonder, was my city on their radar?

Not knowing what else to do with my own anxiety, I went to work. As a therapist, it is often easier to focus on someone else’s troubles than your own. Even if you think those troubles might be identical.

I remember that some of the teenagers I worked with that day were scared as well. One girl said she saw her father cry for the first time that morning. A boy naively expressed relief that all the bad guys were dead, blown up in their own deadly scheme. A couple of teens never brought up the day’s terrifying events. In those sessions, we talked about girlfriend troubles, curfews, homework, and how awesome it was to get out of school early.

What a difference a decade makes.

One teenage client of mine arrived in my office yesterday grinning broadly in a Desert Storm camo cap, emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes over each ear. Osama bin Laden was dead and he was celebrating. In fact, every single teen, and tween, that I have worked with or talked to since have had some reaction:

“I’m glad for the families of 9/11 victims.”

“I think it’s so sick that people are celebrating that someone is dead. It just seems weird to me.”

“Ten years of war. I wish I could have pulled that trigger myself, man. I would have loved that.”

Unlike my young charges from a decade earlier, my clients today have grown up with a different level of awareness. They’ve grown up with war. They know about terror alerts. They can find Afghanistan on a map. They’ve seen a different level of anxiety in the adults around them. They know that not everybody loves America.

They take their shoes off at the airport.

They recognize overtly that their security is not a sure thing. Most of my earlier clients would never had any reason to even consider their security.

So now there’s a new wrinkle in the story: Osama Bin Laden is dead, and parents are facing difficult questions. They are already asking me how to talk to their kids about the arc of the past ten years, the wars, the threats, and why they might be happy, really happy, to hear a man is dead.

Well, first off, in order to guide our kids, we need to be well-informed, and teach our kids how to be well-informed themselves. Read newspapers, and magazines, gather information online, and teach your kids to read, watch and listen with a discerning eye. Many teenagers are aware, in ways that many of us were not, that appearing in print or online does not make something true.

My teen clients have complained to me that their parents have a tendency to shove their ideals down their throats — from politics, feelings about war, presidents, to good guys and bad guys. In my opinion, this is an opportunity lost. In these days, there is a potential to allow for discourse with our teens about how the wars, September 11, Middle Eastern nations, the United States, and the cost of a barrel of oil are interconnected.

Believe me, this is a generation of thinkers. Given the opportunity, they will generate and express more thoughtful and well-considered opinions than many of us might think them capable of. Listen, and let your teen surprise you.

So, I have a strong bias in favor of teaching teens to think, not telling them what to think.

But what about the fear factor?

Well, I think some parents have an impulse to protect their children from the potential threats of the real world. Others may over-state the threats. I’ve heard a number of parents suggest directly to their teenager that the world is a scary place, that an internal terror alert is appropriate given the state of affairs worldwide.

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I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my teenage son to walk through his life in a state of fear. Period.

You’ll have to decide how you talk to your teen about war, terror, and the war on terror. I just encourage you to take the opportunity to talk. And to listen.

As for me, I want my son to sleep well at night, confident that he is safe. But I don’t want him to be ignorant to the world around him. I want him to take very little for granted. I want him to know there are people out there, right now, fighting for his freedom.

I want him to know how fortunate he is to be an American.


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