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Talking to Children About September 11

At the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the national attention in the United States turns to remembering that horrible day. In addition to dealing with our own feelings as adults remembering where we were and how we felt as the events unfolded, parents are challenged to offer children, who were either not yet born or too young to remember, an age-appropriate understanding of what occurred. Attempting to offer a truthful, respectful explanation without terrifying children can be a clumsy and difficult business.

My children are nearly 5 and 9 on this anniversary. My youngest daughter is still in Pre-K, where this event is not being discussed at all. My older daughter is a 4th grader in a class of 4th-6th graders, where I am quite sure 9/11 is being discussed, if not formally in class, then at least among her peers. I am lucky in that neither of them are prone to nightmares, or fixating on upsetting news, which gives me some freedom to offer a reasonable amount of factual detail, within reason. That said, I do shield both of them quite actively from violent or graphic imagery. I am not planning to raise this issue at all with my younger daughter, unless she somehow picks it up on her own or I know she has overheard or seen something that requires explanation. I do plan to have a discussion with my older daughter.

The first step in deciding how to approach this issue is to assess your own children in a similar way. My husband and I will take care not to have the television on or to leave the newspaper lying around, as I believe them both too young to see images of the attacks themselves. We are also taking care where we go during the day, avoiding restaurants or shops with televisions.

With my older daughter, I plan to ask her if she knows why the date 9/11 is significant, and what she knows or has heard about that day. A great way to talk to children about difficult subjects is first ask them what they think or know. This gives a parent a starting point and can relieve a great deal of stress about knowing how much information to provide. Hearing the way that they choose to present their knowledge tells you not only what they concretely know or donít know, but a sense of the level of maturity and depth with which they are capable of conversing.

It is hard to anticipate where the discussion will go in terms of the details of the events themselves. I know I will be prepared to tell her about where I was, and how the day unfolded for us, and to some extent, how I felt. Whatever else we discuss, Iíll be making sure to touch on some critical points:

- These sorts of events, while we canít anticipate them, donít happen often. There are smart and brave men and women who work for various agencies of the government working very hard to do their best to keep us safe from this sort of event. Sometimes, they canít prevent everything, and 9/11 was a tragic lapse, but these agencies have learned from it, and thatís a big part of why nothing like this has happened again in this country in her memory. There is no need, and no use to be had, in living in fear.

- The events of 9/11 were not an Islamic attack, but an attack by a handful of evil, extremist people who distorted that religion in a horrible way. While there are people such as these in every religion who find messages of hate, the vast majority of Muslims in America and worldwide condemn the actions of the terrorists and are sickened by this application of their religion.

- 9/11 reminds us of the bravery and heroism, not just in emergencies, but every day of police, firefighters, and medical first responders. Many people were saved by the quick and brave actions of these public servants in New York and DC and some died doing their jobs. We are also reminded that everyday people can be heroes who put others before themselves on days like this - from those on Flight 93 who gave their lives to protect unknown others to those who nearby who helped affected families and neighbors any way they could. Itís important to focus on the need to be of service Ė that for lack of being able to help in more direct ways from far away, that people all over the country were reminded to step up and give blood, or send assistance to families who needed it.

In the shadow of September 11, we are left, officially, with a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Using the day to find a service project to better their community with our children is a fitting way to pay tribute to those who died and those who work hard to keep us safe.

Find a service project in your area through serve.gov

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