How can you talk to your kids about the events that transpired on September 11th, 2001 without putting fear in their hearts? How do you continue to ask your kids to get on an airplane or go to the top of a big building without having them worry about the potential for danger?
As a travel mom, I’ve found navigating 9/11 conversations more than a little difficult. And yet, at the same time- simpler than I could have imagined.
My daughter was 5 the first time I felt led to educate her about 9/11. I wrote about the experience on her personal blog, and rather than attempting to regurgitate the information I’ve decided to copy my post verbatim:Today I decided to give Mary Grace a very brief, appropriate for a 5-year old, explanation of the significance of September 11th. I typically tend to shelter her from information. She’s only going to be little and naive for such a short amount of time. BUT, I wasn’t sure if she’d hear anything at school today and I felt that her first information should come from home.
So, in about two minutes I summed up everything I thought she should know about 9/11.
When I finished she looked very upset and she was completely silent. I gave her a few minutes to reflect on my words. I worried that I said too much. I prayed that I didn’t fill her heart with fear or hate. As the silence stretched out I honestly started sweating and thinking that I had changed Mary Grace’s life forever by telling her this information.
Finally, she looked up at me and in her raspy little voice said:“Mommy, you know what I’m confused about?”What sweetheart?“I just don’t understand why Tinkerbell doesn’t have a crown like my other princesses. I mean, she HAS to be a princess because her clothes don’t change. You know, like princesses never change their clothes. Well, except for Belle, but that’s only because she has a blue dress and a yellow dress. But Tinkerbell never changes clothes. Why doesn’t she have a crown, Mommy?”
Good talk Mary Grace. Good talk.
Well, there you have it. The moment I realized that kids will process things in their own time and in their own way.
Mary Grace heard my words that day. But she sat on them for 2 months. In fact, I sort of forgot we’d had the conversation.
But then we traveled.
And at the airport she turned to me and asked “Mommy, what if the bad guys are on our plane today?” Let me tell you, THAT was a fun conversation to have with a 5-year old FULL of questions sitting at an overcrowded gate. I’ve probably never felt more judged for my parenting skills than in that one conversation with the world listening!Thankfully about 20 people came up to me after the conversation and reassured me that I handled it with grace and unimaginable composure (though I felt much differently- I was totally sweating and my heart was beating about a million miles an hour!)
Since that day, we’ve talked about 9/11 on occasion.
I’ve presented the events to my son- who processes things in a TOTALLY different way than my daughter. He heard the word “bad guys” and wanted to know EVERYTHING about them: Who are they? Where are they? What did they look like? Did they have swords? Such a boy response and about 180 degrees different than my daughter’s reaction!
This summer our family had the opportunity to visit the Memorial in New York City. The experience was confusing. Almost surreal. It was hard. And humbling. It brought back floods of memories for my husband and me about living through 9/11- where we were that day and the emotions. But it also brought up tons more questions from the kids. After our trip I was asked about visiting the Memorial and how I explained 9/11 to my children. Being frequent travelers, the last thing I wanted to do was make them afraid to fly or to enjoy a big city. But I also didn’t want to mince the facts or re-write history. It’s a sensitive subject to broach and it feels like you’re tiptoeing through land minds.
Here are a few tips for handling the conversation about September 11th:
- Less is More: I firmly believe kids don’t need to know everything. At least not at first. Start with presenting a few key facts. Tailor the rest of your conversation based on their questions. Anyone with kids knows- they will ask questions! Answer as honestly as you can, but keep the answers super simple.
- Words, Not Pictures: We do not watch the news in front of our kids. Pictures from the media can become images burned into our heads forever. And that’s not necessary. Likewise, present 9/11 verbally. Eventually you may choose to expose them to the images from that day- but do so with caution and care. Pictures make things A LOT more real.
- Reassurance: Guess how many times the Bible says “do not be afraid?” Three hundred and sixty-five. That’s not a coincidence! God doesn’t want us to live our lives in fear. Above all else, reassure your children that they don’t need to be fearful of the bad guys or attacks. As an adult, do I realize it’s always a possibility that something like 9/11 could happen again? Sure. But I choose not to be paralyzed with the what-if scenario. Kids aren’t as good at making that decision so make it for them- reassure them that they do not need to be afraid when traveling!
- Hero Focused: September 11th was a tragic day; however, there are remarkable stories about the good guys that emerged. The brave firefighters and first responders that ran into a burning building to save others. The people on Flight 93 that forced their plane down in an empty field to save the lives of countless more. Tell your kids those stories. Let them focus on ordinary people doing remarkable things in the face of evil. I pray my kids will NEVER find myself in those circumstances, but if they do- I want them to remember the stories of the heros- and to be those kind of people.
- Changes: A great way to conclude the conversation is to educate your children about the changes our country made after 9/11. My kids are familiar with airport procedures- explaining to them why we have to go through such strict security (removing our shoes, throwing away water bottles, etc.) is a great way to remind them that those inconvienet lines are actually there to keep us safe. Be a champion for the country, TSA security and all the safety measures in place at airports, sporting events, amusement parks, etc. Let your your kids feel protected and safe!
Navigating through conversations about 9/11 will never be easy. But they can produce some sweet family dialog. It’s a great opportunity to be transparent with your children about a difficult topic, while still keeping the conversation appropriate for young hearts. Don’t stress if the conversation turns to Tinkerbell! As I mentioned, children all process information differently- in their own time and way!
If you are looking for more resources, I recommend this book: America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell. It’s not for every child and should certainly be accompanied by adult discussion. But for children who NEED a visual or have more questions, this book is well done.
UPDATE: This post was written several years ago. My daughter is 14 now, and this week she’s reading The Day The World Came To Town. It is the story of the 38 planes heading to the US on 9/11 that were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. Great read! And really cool to hear a totally different perspective, and stories about how the world came together in the days following the attack.
This answer will be different for everyone, but I’m curious- what age do you think is appropriate to begin talking to your kids about 9/11?
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