Explaining 9/11 to kids born after it or those who were too young to remember it is tricky, to say the least. It was a nightmarish day, and the last thing we want to do is give our kids nightmares. But it was an important day in history, and one that many children are confused about, so it's wise to keep the lines of communication open with kids as we approach the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
An online search for good resources and tips for tackling the topic proved to be a wild goose chase -- which shows how scary it is that some kids are Googling to learn more about 9/11. Here's some of the best information I found (please add a comment if you have other links and advice to share):
- Don't dodge the subject because it's difficult, the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum advises in its guide, "Talking to Your Kids About 9/11." Acknowledge your own feelings as a parent bringing up the topic of 9/11, and use open-ended questions with your kids. So, it's okay to say something like, "This is tough to talk about, because 9/11 was a sad and scary day, but I'm wondering if there's anything you might like to know about 9/11? Why do you think everyone is talking about the 15th anniversary of it?" Don't force the discussion, but say that you can always help answer any questions about it.
- Fill in the blanks, and provide correct information. Unless your child has had a solid history lesson on 9/11, chances are, she has incomplete, incorrect information on the events because of rumors among her peers. As highlighted in a Nickelodeon news special, What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001, some children think hundreds of planes were hijacked, and others believe the hijackers were from Japan or were ordered by Saddam Hussein. You might even be rusty on the details yourself.
- Start with the basics -- facts that adults take for granted but kids may not know, the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) reminds us in their 9/11 guide. Explain that 9/11 refers to the date of September 11, 2001 (not to be confused with dialing 9-1-1 in case of an emergency), a sunny Tuesday 15 years ago when terrorists took over and crashed four American planes. NAGC describes terrorists as "people who do things to frighten others," and their guide to talking with kids about about war and terrorism might be helpful.
- Explain the events of the day accurately and at your discretion. Consider your child's age and tendency to feel anxious -- be honest and open but not overwhelming with how much information you provide. This Children's BBC site explains 9/11 in a straightforward timeline. It's not up-to-date with information on Osama bin Laden's death, but offers details on who he and the attackers were, which some kids might have wondered about. This "9/11 by the Numbers" article from New York Magazine is graphic and geared toward adult readers, but offers some statistics you may want to share with your children to explain the impact of the the attacks -- beyond the "Never Forget" bumper stickers they've seen on cars.
- Monitor what your kids see. Images of the World Trade center in flames will be all over the TV and Internet in the coming days. 911memorial.org reminds us that many children are too young to watch the graphic images of 9/11, at least without adult supervision. Teens may be able to handle images of the events, but younger children may be too traumatized. "Be actively involved in the quality and amount of information they receive," 911memorial.org says.
- Offer the human perspective. Explain that about 3,000 people died on 9/11 and at least 30,000 people were directly affected by those deaths. As NAGC points out, "The events of September 11, 2001 started a nationwide conversation about grief." Discussing 9/11 involves discussing death -- part of life. Project Rebirth is a non-profit organization that produced the documentary "Rebirth" about five people directly affected by 9/11, and their lives over the first 10 years after the attack. This slideshow of 9/11 artifacts also brings the human element to the surreal events of 9/11.
Also check out these 9/11 resource for teachers:
- "Creating a Safe Space in the Classroom" by NAGC
- 911memorial.org Teaching Guides
- The New York Times Learning Network blog posts on teaching 9/11
Be sensitive. Be real. In a world where people are publishing coloring books about 9/11, you're the best person to explain this tough subject to your child.