I was seven months pregnant on September 11, 2001. I remember watching the news coverage at work, stunned as I saw the planes hit the Towers over and over, wondering at the world that my husband and I were bringing a tiny baby girl into. Olivia, my oldest daughter, was born two months to the minute that the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
I have read countless articles over the last 10 years about talking with children about that day in September, both as an educator and as a mom. What could possibly make sense to young children about something that made no sense to me? How can I promise them that they will be safe? How can I protect them from the knowledge that there are people who would dance in the streets at the deaths of 3000 people who did nothing more than go to work or get on a plane that day?
My daughters have asked few questions over the last several years about the attacks in September 2001. It was important to me that they not see the footage of the burning Towers or the crying people. We have avoided the majority of the news coverage. Olivia was about 5 when we stumbled upon a memorial outside the Crayola Factory in Easton PA. She asked me what had happened and I told her, as simply as I could about the horrible events that had unfolded while she was safely in my belly, blissfully unaware. She asked me if that was going to happen again and seemed satisfied with my answer, "I hope not."
Experts agree on several things about the impact of the September 11, 2001 events on young children. First, reflect broadly on how directly they have been affected by those attacks. Do you live near an attack site? Did someone that was important to the child die in those attacks? Is a parent serving in the military? Does the parent fly frequently? Are parents pilots, flight attendants, police officers, fire fighters? Does the parent work in a tall building? Try thinking about the events from a child's perspective when you reflect on direct affect. Though it is clear that a child who lost a parent in the attacks experiences a different level of daily impact, to a child that has no sense of space or time and limited abstract thinking may see news footage of the attacks and think they are happening over and over again on a building that looks a lot like where mommy works in downtown Harrisburg.
With that said, be sensitive to the news footage. It is hard for any of us to watch as adults, it can feel extremely frightening to young children. Ask teachers how they may or may not plan to discuss 9/11 with children. If you are a teacher, make sure you involve families in your planning around 9/11. Though as adults we have grown more "used to" the image of those towers burning, they are very new, very awful images to young children.
Explain words that you are using. When you say terrorist, what does that mean? Even the term 9/11 can be interpreted as 9-1-1. Try to talk about the event in ways that relate to changes or efforts we have made to keep the child safe. My discussion with my daughters about the attacks happened recently when my husband was travelling and we saw him take off his shoes for airport security. They couldn't understand why that needed to happen and it led to a good discussion.
Try to monitor your own stress around the anniversary and the recent threats of additional attacks. Your children will equate the meaning you give to this event. Though I advocate that you share your feelings honestly with children, you also are their barometer of safety so balance your honestly with reminders of all the people who are working hard to keep them safe. In the timeless wisdom of Mr. Rogers, always remind children to look for the helpers.
Use children's literature to help you. My favorite story inspired by these events is a little known book called 14 Cows For America by Carmen Agra Deedy. It tells the true story of Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, who is of the Maasai people from Kenya. Naiyomah was studying in the United States in 2001 and when he returned to his people, told them the story of the attacks. The Maasai were so moved and horrified by these stories they gifted to our country what was most meaningful to them, 14 cows. It is a beautiful story that tells the story but stresses the healing. Another good book to check out is The Chapel That Stood by A.B. Curtiss that tells the story of that day and focuses on the resiliency of the American spirit.
Uncertainty is scary to many children and we live in a time of much uncertainty. Reassuring your child that you will always be there to listen to them, help them answer their questions and keep them safe is a beautiful gift that comforts them and comforts us as their parents and caregivers.
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