I have an 8, 6 and 4 year old. While eating dinner, we watched Obama's announcement on Bin Laden.

With hindsight, it would have been easier to keep the TV off, but I thought it was a good idea at the time. This was a significant moment in history, he's the US president, and ten years from now my kids might vaguely remember watching this, even if they don't really understand it now.

To try and explain it quickly and simply, I said that Bin Laden was a "baddie". My six year old said that baddie's think that they are goodies.

The questions kept coming, and now I have to explain terrorists' motivations. I felt like I was pushed into this scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-vybA54BF4

Does anyone have advice or any links to resources which can help me here?

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    "My six year old said that baddie's think that they are goodies." You have a very perceptive six year old :) May 2, 2011 at 8:32
  • 2
    I get into these explainations with my son now and again usually it's "are those the bad guys? how do you know?"...which I think is good for a 5 year old. I just keep it short, subjects like terrorism are a subjective and deep question that are hard to fully explain. I'd just try and be general and lead them onto something else until they get older and can grasp political complexities.
    – MichaelF
    May 2, 2011 at 12:02
  • 1
    "The Onion" did a piece about explaining the 9/11 attacks to your children back in 2001: theonion.com/articles/… May 3, 2011 at 7:17
  • @Andrew Thankfully we can count on the Onion to be America's finest news source, broadcasting their 24-hour TV news network since 1892 (three years before radio was invented) which is now seen in over 811 countries around the world (which is 616 more than are actually in the world.) They're spot on good reporting.
    – corsiKa
    May 3, 2011 at 7:45
  • That is the cutest clip
    – bobobobo
    Dec 29, 2011 at 0:46

5 Answers 5


From my experience with children, especially young children, the simpler is better. If I was in your situation, I would explain to the children that some people make bad decisions. I would explain that some bad decisions are worse than others (like throwing a toy in the house is “bad decision”, but choosing to hurt somebody else is a “very bad decision”). Then I would explain that the terrorists make bad decisions to hurt other people because they don’t know how to use their words to get what they want. They believe they have to hurt other people to get what they want, which is not true, I would tell them. You could even say that they never learned how to talk about their problems (or their parents never taught them to communicate their needs). If they ask what they want, you could say something along the lines that they want us to live like them, but we don’t want to. You could go into as much detail as you deem appropriate for their development if they ask how they want us to live like them. If they keep asking why they make bad decisions, and they can’t understand it is because they don’t know any other way to get what they want, you could say that sometimes we don’t know why people make bad decisions, they just do. This is true, sometimes we don’t understand why people make the choices they do.

Explaining it in this way will help give children a sense of control over their lives (if they make good decisions, then good things will happen) to help prevent them from getting scared. This is important especially for young children who find it hard to understand complicated topics, which in turn makes things scarier.

Also, you may find that changing your tone of voice may help your children find peace with the situation. If you aren’t confident in what you are saying or your tone of voice has a lot of inflection, then that gives the children a sense that there is more that they don’t understand. If your tone has confidence it may help give them some finality. Just be careful that you aren’t using a disciplining tone, because that would be counterproductive and discourage your children from communicating and asking questions from you. Just confident like how you would speak if you were trying to convince an audience something.

  • @LennartRegebro Is it possible you misread that line as "... they want us to LIKE them, but we don't want to"? The answerer actually said "... they want us to LIVE LIKE them, but we don't want to"
    – learner101
    Jan 16, 2017 at 13:09

My take on it (for adults and children alike) goes something like this:

  • Many people feel that they deserve a better life than they have, and most of the time they are correct.
  • Most people also tend to split the world into "Us" vs "Them", because it makes the world much easier to understand. Most of the time they are wrong, and the differences they think exist does not actually exist. This goes for Christians vs Muslims, Left vs Right, Capitalists vs Proletariat, etc. We are all the same, and we are all different, no matter what groups we belong to. There are always many different "Us" and there is no "Them". (This may require a longer separate explanation).
  • Some evil people use these feelings to get themselves more power. They fool other people into believing that the "Other" group are the ones who prevents you from getting a better life, and that this "Other" group are evil.
  • Some really evil people even say that the "Other" group must be killed.
  • This way people who rightly feel that their life is unfair are fooled into killing innocent people. Sometimes as terrorists, sometimes in wars and sometimes in ways that are to horrible to even think about.

I came across a TED talk about the psychology and motivation of terrorists:

By leading the Americans in his audience at TEDxPSU step by step through the thought process, sociologist Sam Richards sets an extraordinary challenge: can they understand -- not approve of, but understand -- the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? And by extension, can anyone truly understand and empathize with another?


I haven't watched it myself yet (I'm at work) but it sounds like it would contain useful thoughts that you can use to discuss with your children. Edit: Have watched it, and still think it's a very useful approach to help understand why some people insist on an opposite worldview of yours.

Off-topic: TED talks are awesome and cover an incredible range of topics. They're usually 6-20 minutes long.


I actually got this questions from my 6-yo son couple of days ago.

I told him that there can be a group of people who are extremely disagree with the government. They only way to change things that they see is to explode things, kill politicians and to scare people. Such members of such a group are called "terrorists".


People think differently. For the most part, people around the world are able to get along with other people even though we have different opinions. Some people are not willing to even try to get along with other people. They refuse to accept the fact that others have those different opinions, and will stop at nothing to force those opinions onto others.

They use violence when they can because it's very effective. Their goal is not just to hurt people (which is bad enough) but instead their goal is to scare us. They want us to be scared.

Now, this is what comes to mind when I think about what to say. The problem I see is... I don't want my daughter being scared when I tell her this. I would like to think our national security is able to protect us, and would like her to feel safe and secure as well. How exactly I would balance that, I'm not entirely sure.

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