Talking to Your Kid About 9/11: Chickening Out Edition

How do you explain a terrorist attack to this happy little face?

About a month ago, I started freaking out that my daughter would be starting 1st Grade right around the same time as the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Would they talk about it at school? Would it be weird for her to hear about it from someone other than me and her dad? What if the person telling her about it has political views different from mine? What if she hears about it from some misinformed kid? The list goes on and on, and the decision was clear: it was time to tell her what happened that day.

But how? It’s not like she needs to hear the details of the day, like when I was walking to work and looked up at the sound of a distant crash to see a fireball shooting out of a skyscraper. Or frantically trying to reach my husband to make sure he wasn’t already on the way down to his Tribeca office. Or watching the second plane hit and the towers fall from my office window in Soho. Or making my way back uptown among people covered in dust, wondering what was happening to the world.

No, at six she just needs the basics with a bit of context.

The first opportunity presented itself with Hurricane Irene. After we made some preparations in the form of hastily-collected food, water, flashlights, and candles, the storm passed by us without inflicting damage on our neighborhood. Perfect segue into “Hey, there are some things you can prepare for and some things you can’t.” But then we decided one hurricane is plenty to process for a six-year-old.

Then on one of our end of summer vacation days we rode the Staten Island Ferry together. Should I tell her about the changed landscape of downtown Manhattan? I pointed out the new skyscraper going up, but it was too nice a day to delve deeper. I didn’t want to put a downer on our trip to the Staten Island Children’s Museum.

What if we made a trip specifically to someplace that provided context? The 9/11 site itself is still just a giant construction site at this point, so I thought about taking her to the New York City Fire Museum with its permanent 9/11 installation. But then she got sick and we didn’t go.

I’ve been leaving my 9/11 issue of New York magazine out in plain site (a great issue, by the way) in hopes that she’ll ask about it. No dice.

Now we’ve decided to just let it ride, and only talk about 9/11 if she asks about it. There are so many kids born after 9/11. How did your children learn of 9/11? How old were they? Any advice to offer us chickens?

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12 thoughts on “Talking to Your Kid About 9/11: Chickening Out Edition

  1. Daddy went to Iraq when our oldest son was 11 months old in 2003 (right after the invasion), and there’s a kid-friendly explanation in the baby book about Daddy heading to war, and why he had to go. That people who didn’t believe in the same thing as most Americans tried to hurt our feelings by attacking important buildings and killing Americans.

    This past President’s Day, our oldest son had to choose a President to report on and he chose George W. Bush because Bush was president when he was born. He included a brief piece about President Bush having to lead the country through the pain of 9/11.

    On another note, at his birthday party yesterday, one of his guests presented a birthday card where she wrote “Remember 9/11” in fancy bubble letters. I think the assumption in military communities is that the kids are aware of it…it’s the explanation we use for all the parents who are still rotating in and out in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at this base we’re at, the deployment rate is among the highest in the USAF, and this base and command has lost more Airmen than any other.

    1. Patricia, I can understand why military families would want to tie an important sacrifice such as going off to Iraq with the need to protect our country from attacks like 9/11.

      But the decision to invade Iraq was made even though there was no link between that country and 9/11 and no WMDs to threaten us — as I think Bush himself has admitted.

      I think we’re doing kids today a disservice by blurring the distinction between the two.

  2. I thought about you on Thursday, Amy, when my daughter and I were down in the City. I kept looking for you on the Subway (one in a million chance, literally, of seeing you!) I wondered how you were feeling about the anniversary coming up.

    I dont have any great advice to you, beyond ‘keep bringing it up’.

    It changed her City, and she might be interested to hear the most about the parts where everyone came together and helped each other. I’d tell her what happened, since she’ll be seeing it everywhere, but focus on how it unified the City, and how people helped each other out, ‘like family’. It might make her see her City with new eyes, feeling like she’s surrounded by ‘family’.

    Her take away wont be the horribleness (until she’s older) but instead the way people in NYC learned to love each other through a tough time.

    Just a thought. Thinking of your family today…

    1. @Judy – I like the community thought. Through 9/11, blackouts, and just about everything else thrown NYC’s way, I love the feeling of the glue that holds New Yorkers together.

      @Jennifer – I think you touched on something critical that will stay with me to add to my explanation. Hating someone else isn’t enough to commit such a horrendous act. It’s hating yourself, too. Full of hate in all directions sounds right.

      @RockinLibrarian – Thank you for the recommendations. I love Maira Kalman in particular and will check it out.

      @Kathy – Love your post and look forward to your recommendations as well, and your wisdom as always.

      Thanks, everyone!

  3. We have talked about it this year with our 7 year old. I am sure it came up some last year too, but she doesn’t remember. This year, she heard us talking about 9/11 and asked what it was. We tried to keep it simple: bad people crashed planes into a building and killed a lot of people. She asked why they would do that.

    That was hard to answer. I still tear up thinking about all the families who lost someone. All the hate that must have led to each decision. I told her you can’t understand something like this because it doesn’t make sense. I told her that the people who did it were full of hate for themselves and others.

    She then asked more questions and we answered as best we could. I think she is still too young to see the video footage. It is still disturbing for me, but I know at some point she will see it and we will talk about it again. It isn’t easy to talk and I don’t think it ever will be. Thoughts and prayers to everyone today.

  4. The thing I immediately thought of was this picture book called Fireboat, by Maira Kalman, which I had read to last year’s Summer Reading Club on their Boat-themed week. It’s about how a retired fireboat, crewed by –non-fire-people at any rate, I’m not sure if “civilians” is the word I’m looking for– came out of retirement to help fight the fires at the site of the Towers on 9/11. It’s a book that is ABOUT 9/11, but only sort of– it’s really about heroism and teamwork and, dude, FIREBOATS, so kids love it.

    There are other picture books about 9/11 too. The thing that makes them good for this discussion is that they’re all focused on the heroism of ordinary people, rather than on A Bad Thing Happened. And really, for people who remember when it happened, it can seem very emotional, nothing else like it, The Whole World Turned Upside Down; but for people who DON’T remember it, it’s just another event in history. How do you approach the topic of Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima with your kids? How do you approach natural disasters? How do you approach family tragedies? Sometimes it’s not necessary to approach it at all until later. Sometimes the kids don’t even CARE– it’s just another of those big Historical Things. But personally I think if we’re going to talk about these things, we talk about how people responded and the good that they did– make the lesson less about This Bad Thing Happened and more about When Bad Things Happen, What Do People Do to Help? Here’s What Some People Did When THIS Bad Thing Happened.

    1. I agree, and I’ll be mentioning some other round-about ways to talk about 9/11 with picture books in a post later this week.

      But I also know kids who found being forced to deal with it by well-meaning teachers overwhelming. Like many sensitive topics, you should try to pick up on your kid’s cues about what they are ready for.

      For a look at what happens when you overload your kid with information (albeit unintentionally), see my 9/11 post over on GeekDad today:

  5. Also, Amy, your concern about her hearing about it from schoolmates is well-grounded. I still remember hearing about the Holocaust from a classmate — “You mean, they were killing whole families, just because they were Jewish?” As a Jewish kid, THAT certainly gave me something to think about. But really, by fifth grade — in a community that included many Holocaust survivors still carrying tattoos on their arms — it should probably have been mentioned.

    The real answer may be that you can’t win — just “be there” for your kids when they’re ready to hear about the bad stuff.

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