On That Day: Teaching Our Children About 9/11

6 years ago

Parental instinct often leads us to shelter our children from the “bad” of the world. The far-reaching coverage of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 have made that shielding almost impossible this year. If you’ve walked past a magazine in the grocery store, turned on your TV or loaded a news website with your child looking over your shoulder, your kids have likely seen or heard murmurings of what happened ten years ago. So how do you deal with it?

For those kids who were already alive at the time of the attacks, they’ve aged ten years and have likely already asked or learned about that day, the reasons behind it and why it means so much in American history -- but they still might not understand. One of my friends found it difficult to explain to her daughter why others were rejoicing the death of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year. And for those children who weren’t even a glimmer in their parents’ eyes yet, falling somewhere in the ages of 10 to newborn, the questions parents are asking themselves now are the hows and whens of so much information sharing. What do we share? And at what age? And in what way so we don't scare the living daylights out of them? Let’s face it: Planes flying into buildings and thousands of people dying is scary.

For this specific topic, my family does what we always do for any subject that requires a bit more information than I feel qualified to give: We turn to books. Fireboat is one of our favorites and we added another three to our library this year. Our total 9/11 children’s library now includes: On That Day by Andrea Patel (beautiful, simple), September Roses by Jeanette Winter (touching side story), The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (which is another fascinating history lesson in itself), 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy (a great non-American-centric book), and the beautiful book, The Little Chapel That Stood by A. B. Curtiss. We read them all year long, as the boys ask, but we promote them this week and pick them ourselves when it’s time for some reading. They've asked questions, we've provided answers and, so far, they don't seem scared about "bad people" or "planes crashing."

As an aside, we don’t own the controversial 9/11 coloring book. Nor will we. Yikes.

Other parents have been sharing their ways of educating their children about the tragedy America endured ten years ago.

  • Lynn Trimble at Stage Mom shares some great resources from 911Memorial.org for kids aged preschool through teens. Here are just two of the great tips:

    • Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest. Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and to explore the questions together.
    • Be specific. The story of 9/11 is actually thousands of individual stories. Highlight those specific stories to help humanize the events, and avoid stereotypes and simplifications.
  • Lynn at Autism Army Mom shares what her daughter is learning in school about 9/11 -- which seems rather horrific to me and reinforces the idea that parents need to pay attention to what their kids are learning in school. A warning: Reading this post may ruin Twinkies for you forever.

    That article basically says that it's all kumbaya -- talking about the meaning of peace and why some people are mean to others -- until middle school when they start getting into discussions about terrorism.

    Well apparently Audrey's new classroom did not get that memo. Or maybe they just decided that they had to put it right out there for autistic kids. Because she came home with a very long and involved social story called "A Sad Anniversary", complete with a Boardmaker symbol for "terrorist" which I've lovingly rendered above.

    Also included was a recipe for "Twinkie Towers"...

  • Sadie Barker at Just Kiddin’ brings up a very important point about the curriculum (see above) and teaching our children about that day.

    While it is important to give students exposure to individual accounts, which are often passionate and engaging, it is equally critical to put these stories into a larger context. Students need a basic understanding of the factors leading up to that day, the events that took place that day, and the ramifications that followed. The problem with building a curriculum around these “basics” is that the story is still being written. Over the last decade, rhetoric swirling around this topic has changed dramatically and run through a wide gamut of perspectives.

  • Grace, BlogHer's Race & Ethnicity Section Editor, featured a fantastic piece by Fariha Khan about taking to her Muslim son about 9/11.

    “Mama, what is the tallest building in New York City?”

    I look at him and hesitate, “Well, umm, it used to be these two buildings called the Twin Towers…” I can see his eyes transfixed on me as he sees the caveat coming. “But it’s now the Empire State Building.” And now he’s stopped eating and has asked the inevitable, “What happened?” I stare at him for a good, long moment. How and what do I tell a five-year-old about September 11th?

  • Lisa Vratny-Smith brings it all home with a reminder that we should let our kids drive the conversations we have about 9/11 and follow their lead with questions and answers.

    In your conversations with your children, start by asking what they already know about the day. Let their answers and level of interest guide where you go in the conversation and how much additional information to share. Support them by answering their questions. If you need to process your own feelings, do so with another adult.

Teaching our children about 9/11 is one thing, but helping them understand the sacrifice and loss is another. We will be attending a memorial service on Sunday morning during which a piece of the World Trade Center will be dedicated at the site of our new courthouse. I encourage you to take your kids along on any memorials in your area. Or check out one of these great ideas.

  • Heather Jermak contributed a post to Raising Boys World about how they will be taking cookies to their local firehouse on September 11th this year.

    He thinks that their sacrifice is an amazing thing. From our experience with Hurricane Katrina, we know how powerful anniversary dates can be. We have also learned that the fastest path to healing is helping others. So we decided that this Sunday, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we were going to bring cookies to our local firefighters. It’s a small gesture but we want to make sure that our firefighters know that we care about them, honor their sacrifices and remember them.

  • Consider writing your kids a letter about that day, about how life changed for you after 9/11 or anything of that nature, like Elaine did at The DC Moms.

    I was going to tell you that this tragedy presented an opportunity. An opportunity for you to reach across cultures with love, rather than anger, to try and turn this world right again. But now that September is here, I think I’m just trying to fool myself. This world I’ve brought you into is messed up in a million ways. In deference to my friend and poet Ed Skoog, I’ll end with this. Blue skies in September make me sad. Really sad. Because I want my psyche back how it was before it was rocked 10 years ago. I want the thought that a bomb just struck to not simmer in the back of my head always. I want to feel safe again.

  • Take your child out to a special or on-going memorial. If you’re in NYC, A Child Grows has a fantastic list of both kinds for families, especially things happening this weekend.

Whatever you do this weekend, don’t be afraid to let your children see your emotions. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear. When I learned about tragedies that came before me by people who were deeply affected by those events, I was always more compassionate and empathetic than reading about it in a book. Let them know how you feel, encourage them to share how they feel and do something together this weekend.

How have you taken on the task of teaching your children about September 11, 2011? Share in the comments or link us to a post you’ve written.

Family Section Editor Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land. She is a writer, editor and photographer.

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