Will you talk about terrorism, 9/11 with kids on anniversary?

We visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial this summer. We talked with the kids about what happened the day of the bombing but then tried to focus on the memorial.

We visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial this summer. We talked with the kids about what happened the day of the bombing but then tried to focus on the memorial. The kids were checking out the reflecting pool, gates and chairs at the memorial. (Photos by Theresa Walsh Giarrusso)

Empty chairs represent each of the 168 victims of the bombing. Smaller chairs were used to represent the children that died in the day care. I didn't notice the smaller chairs at first but my 7-year-old did. He also theorized that the materials for the chairs were recycled from the bombed building and he was right.

Empty chairs represent each of the 168 victims of the bombing. Smaller chairs were used to represent the children that died in the day care. I didn't notice the smaller chairs at first but my 7-year-old did. He also theorized that the materials for the chairs were recycled from the bombed building and he was right.

On the anniversary of 9/11, some parents may shoo their kids out of room when footage of the doomed towers comes on the TV, and others may use it as an opportunity to explain the complicated topic of terrorism to their kids.

A friend of ours wrote an article for Salon about explaining 9/11 to her 7-year-old. A native New Yorker, she struggled with how much to tell her son and how to help him understand what happened.

Her son asked several times about the towers and she kept putting him off. Until finally she had a game plan:

“On one of my son’s last days of school in June, I was ready when he got off the bus. As he walked up the driveway, I was trying hard not to be awkward or nervous. Which meant, of course, that I was completely awkward and nervous.”

“I was equipped with visual aids — images and news reports I’d curated to tell the story honestly but in a way that was manageable to a first-grader. Pictures of the towers with smoke coming out the top, but no falling bodies. Pictures of firefighters, but none of the airplanes hitting.”

“I told him about the men and the planes. And I told him that after nearly nine years, nothing like this has happened again.”

She said he listened, asked good questions and then was ready to move onto snack and TV. Later he told her he was sorry her friends were hurt.

We had a similar challenge this summer on a cross country trip. We had planned to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, but we hadn’t really formulated what we would tell the children about the April 19, 1995 bombing. As we got closer I started searching on my smart phone to make sure I had all my facts straight.

We told the story as a history professor would: Timothy McVeigh parked a truck packed with explosives in front of the federal building and walked away. The truck exploded killing 168 people. (Things started getting murkier when we tried to explain his motivation and the link to the Waco Siege that ended on the same day in 1993. We should have just stuck to the facts about Oklahoma City.)

We didn’t focus for long on the actual bombing but spent extensive time visiting the memorial. It is one the most well thought out memorials in the United States and the children really appreciated the symbolism.

My children’s two favorite features of the memorial were the empty chairs and the survivor tree. Here is how they are described on the Oklahoman City National Memorial and Museum Web site:

“Field of Empty Chairs

The 168 chairs represent the lives taken on April 19, 1995. They stand in nine rows to represent each floor of the building, and each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children. The field is located on the footprint of the Murrah Building.”

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree, an American Elm, bore witness to the violence of April 19, 1995, and withstood the full force of the attack. Years later, it continues to stand as a living symbol of resilience. The circular promontory surrounding the tree offers a place for gathering and viewing the Memorial.”

My 7-year-old figured out the chairs were made from reclaimed materials from the bombed building.

My cousin thought it was morbid that we took the children to the memorial site, but I feel like it is part of our history and they should know that it happened. I think the memorial made it a lot easier to share the tragedy with the kids. There seemed to be some healing there that I don’t think New York has gotten yet.

Will you use the anniversary as opportunity to talk about 9/11 or terrorism with your kids? Is it too upsetting to explain the events 9/11 to kids? What age can you even begin to try? What images or facts would be off limits? Have you ever talked about the Oklahoma City bombing with your kids? Tell us what words you have used to explain terrorism and tragedies such as these.

29 comments Add your comment

madmommy

September 11th, 2010
7:20 am

Only as much as a 3 year old can understand, which isn’ much. Plus, it is also her Great Grandmother’s birthday, so it’s kind of tough for her to take in.

Just use some common sense when talking to the kids about this kind of thing, but they need to know what is going on in the world.

deidre_NC

September 11th, 2010
7:47 am

the boy who is living in my home asked me a couple of weeks ago to order a certain documentary (2 disc series) of actual raw footage of the 9/11 attacks. he felt the need to watch it and expereience it again as a 19 year old as opposed to a 10 year old when it happend. it just so happens that the dics are set to arrive today. how starnge is that. we will watch it together when i get home from work. i hope it doesnt kick my butt like the actual event did…even living here in the mountains far away from NY i was in a terrible state for a long time (im sure a lot of people were). i cant even beging to understand what the people felt who were closer to it. my prayers to out to all who lost loved ones that day. what a tragic event.

becky

September 11th, 2010
8:45 am

yes. we should never let the memory fade.

a parent

September 11th, 2010
9:06 am

“Is it too upsetting to explain the events 9/11 to kids?”

Yes, it it too upsetting to explain to adults also, which is why we MUST explain it, never let the memory fade and never back down. Yes, an adult will have to explain in ways a young child could understand, but there is no understanding the madness that occurred that day for child and adult alike.

ken R

September 11th, 2010
9:31 am

Only if the child asked, children have enough stress in their lives and they surely don’t need to be burdened with murder & mayhem.

They will learn about 9/11 in History class and as they get older, they don’t need to think in the back of their heads that it could happen to them at such an early age. If I was going to Oaklahoma or New York to pay my respects I would leave my children home, but that’s just me.

CDD

September 11th, 2010
10:09 am

It’s very hard explaining the ugly side of humanity to your children although it’s necessary. Last year during U.S. history, I got choked up talking about 9/11 with my son (then in 4th grade.) I had to take a break & come back to it. I’m not going to focus too much on it today even though it’s the anniversary of it because my daughters, all younger, won’t understand as well. They will be taught more in-depth about history, both tragedies and triumphs, when they get a few years on them and can comprehend a bit better. Right now they’re getting a background on early world history.

J.B. STONER

September 11th, 2010
11:26 am

Why the hell is O-Blo-Me not in NYC today to observe the worst tragedy in US history that was caused by muslims??

The key word is in my question…..

Dan

September 11th, 2010
11:53 am

A perfect example of the ignorance of our society and the problem with our education system,
Ken R “they will learn about it in history class”
Seriously ??? I sincerly hope you are an observer and not a parent. Talk about passing the buck

Historical Realist

September 11th, 2010
12:01 pm

If you are going to talk to your kids about 9-11, be sure that they understand WHY Osama bin Laden and the others were motivated to do what they did. Explain to them the history of the United States in the Middle East. Make sure they know that we have unilaterally supported the actions of Israel against the previous inhabitants of the land called Palestine. Make sure they know how we helped Saddam Hussein get into power back in the 50’s, how we funded the Mujahadein in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and how OBL was our friend and in the employ basically of the CIA. Make sure they know that we attacked and destroyed Iraq after they invaded Kuwait (though they never threatened us at all). Make sure they know that we supplied Iraq with all of the weapons of “mass destruction” that were talked about to help them in their war against Iran. Make sure they know that during our invasion of Iraq we destroyed their entire infrastructure including water treatment plants and the like in violation of the Geneva Conventions that our country signed. Make sure they know that after destroying their water treatment plants we imposed an embargo against the country that banned even the most basic medicines and bleach neeeded to sterilize water (essential because we destroyed their water treatment plants). Make sure they know that as a result of our embargo, 1.5 million Iraqis died including nearly half a million children. Make sure they know that our secretary of State Madeline Albright appeared on 60 minutes and said that the deaths of all those children was “worth it.” Make sure they know that during the first Gulf War we stationed troops in Saudi Arabia (the holiest land in Islam). Make sure they know that every single one of these actions were specifically cited by the bombers of the world trade center after the attack in 1993 and that this bomber said that this was just the beginning. Make sure they know that OBL also noted every one of these actions as THE REASON behind the 9-11 attacks – Not the lie that “they hate us because we are free” that Bush and Guliani and other idiots put forth to distract the American people from the reponsibility their GOVERNMENT bore in provoking the attacks.

Yes, do talk to your children, but don’t lie to them about WHY. They can get enough of that from the major media and the White House. They don’t need to hear more lies from you.

And if you really feel like being honest, make sure they know that the massive surveilance apparatus that we had before 9-11 had plenty of warnings about an impeding attack but “failed” to put the pieces together and that since the attacks even more billions of dollars have been spent to create an even bigger mess of a surveilance state that now monitors every email, phone call, text message, etc. and is now even less capable of preventing an attack then they were on 9-11.

Historical Realist

September 11th, 2010
12:05 pm

And also be sure to explain to them that now that our country and our miliary are at war with virtually every Muslim nation on earth, the threat against americans is even greater than before 9-11.

That should make they feel secure that our government is doing all it can to keep us safe. I know it makes me feel secure – not!

Historical Realist

September 11th, 2010
12:20 pm

Before you jump all over me like Guliani did to Ron Paul at the first Republican presidential debate, these are the facts from the 9-11 commission report. Yes, I think that was a whitewash of the truth, but they still noted the “motivation” behind the attacks.

And this is not a justification for the terrorist’s behavior. It is an acknowledgement that you just can’t go around killing people all over the world because you think its right and not expect that some of them will be pissed off enough to strike back. And yet since 9-11 we have invaded and occupied two nations that did not attack us (well over half of the supposed attackers were from Saudi Arabia and NONE of them was from Afghanistan or Iraq). We have killed literally hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens of these countries. And now we send unmanned drones into Pakistan (again, another country that has never threatened our nation) and routinely kill dozens of innocent women and children and are further destabilizing this country’s government (and they DO have nuclear weapons).

The US is not the all-wonderful benevolent country they tell you we are on the news and at the White House press conferences. We have been meddling in the affairs of virtually every middle east country since before WWI, treating them as our puppets and disrespecting their cultures and their government all to the benefit of our oil companies and others who would exploit these countrys’ natural resources.

If someone is mad at you isn’t it incumbent upon you to find out why? If you don’t want to change your ways, that is fine, but you cannot expect the hatred to go away. If you are not happy with what you (or your government is doing in your name and with your tax dollars), then you should work to stop it.

Doesn’t look like the citizens of this country are prepared to deal with any of these realities even 9 years after this tragedy.

Historical Realist

September 11th, 2010
1:22 pm

And thanks for mentioning Oklahoma City too. Once again, the actions of our government in the murder of innocent citizens both at Ruby Ridge and at Waco as the motivating factor behind the bombings. Again, not agreeing with the actions, but if you are unwilling to acknowledge the motivation, you will never be able to work to rectify the wrong or stop future actions that will endanger you by harming others.

Anonymous

September 11th, 2010
2:00 pm

I was six years old at the time. All I remember is that I was pleased that there was no school that day. Many adults had come over to our house and were sitting around the radios and television while my older sister kept us younger kids occupied in her bedroom. When we went back to school our first grade teacher showed us a broadcast of 9/11. I still didn’t understand.
After the first year, no one mentioned it to me again. I had to find the information myself.
To the firemen, policemen, and voulunteers; Thank You.
To our servicemen; Thank You.
To those who died; Your memory lives on.
To those who lost loved ones; We pray for you.

Never Forget.

JATL

September 11th, 2010
4:46 pm

No, I won’t discuss it with them until they’re older. If my oldest (4) asked me about it, I would explain it simply, but right now he doesn’t need to think every plane he gets on or sees in the sky is going to be crashed into a building by horrible people. I did give a very simple explanation of OKC because his grandfather lives there and we went to see it. I just told him some really terrible people made a building there explode and it hurt and killed a lot of people. He was barely 3, so I don’t know how much of that he really took in.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

September 11th, 2010
5:07 pm

JATL — I think OK is easier to explain than NYC. They are both terrible but somehow NYC using planes as missiles is just harder to explain.

JATL

September 11th, 2010
7:05 pm

@TWG -I agree. Although both are terrifying, I think to the 4 year old mind, OKC is something kind of distant or not so realistic. I didn’t go into great detail, and I certainly didn’t point out the younger chairs because of his age at the time. I just said they blew up a building and hurt and killed people. If I sat him down and told him about the planes on 9/11 though, I can completely envision a nightmare the next time we have to fly! I’m certainly not trying to downplay OKC, but I do think (for a kid) the perception is different.

irisheyes

September 11th, 2010
8:59 pm

“Why the hell is O-Blo-Me not in NYC today to observe the worst tragedy in US history that was caused by muslims??”

Because the President was at the Pentagon, honoring those who died there while Mrs. Obama was in Pennsylvania honoring those who died there, and the Vice President was in NYC. But I doubt that explanation will satisfy you. You would probably have been one of those people who thought the internment of Japanese during WWII was a good idea, so I know you won’t let facts get in your way.

J.B. STONER

September 11th, 2010
9:16 pm

irisheye ==////””///==

Answer me this you fool……………

Where did the MAJORITY of christian americans die on 9/11/01 ?
NYC . Why did num-nutts NOT go to D.C. today???
Because he is a gut-less muslim who has zero respect for that tragedy.
He would LOVE for a mosque to be built on that site.
Yeah, send suck-em-up Joe there….

AND TO HISTORICAL REALIST, I THINK YOU ARE A RADICAL MUSLIM.

Take your propaganda somewhere else.

newblogger

September 11th, 2010
9:19 pm

@Historical Realist: To quote the USMC “If you can’t stand behind the United States and our troops who defend her-please fell free to stand in front of them.” No one is holding you here-if you feel that strongly about decisions our government has made perhaps you would be more at home in another country. Your comments disgust me and no, my head is not in the sand. I am well aware of “historical facts” and yours are slightly off base. As a military mom, you and your holier than thou/know it all attitude is a slap in the face to our men and women fighting for your freedom to be a jack@##.

JATL

September 11th, 2010
9:55 pm

@J.B. Stoner -instead of worrying about why the president wasn’t in NYC today, shouldn’t you be more worried about why you weren’t in Ellijay at the Klan rally? You obviously belonged there.

J.B. STONER

September 12th, 2010
10:51 am

Well said newblogger………….
That tool is a jihad anti christian moran.
And to JATL, don’t worry about what I worry about.Keep licking O-Blo-Me , support his socialistic policies , his defiance of OUR constitution, his not carrying about our troops and putting all of us in a hole we will NEVER crawl out of.

Stay tuned, bend over, pull your panties down and enjoy the feeling of helplessness.

Historical Realist

September 12th, 2010
8:45 pm

newblogger – sounds like you are more in denial of historical facts.

Its amazing how many people suggest that those who wish their government to abide by the constitution, not meddle in the political affairs of other countries, not destroy the constitution, not violate the Geneva Conventions, etc. are the ones who should leave this country.

There never seems to be the suggestion that we should restore the government and constition that all of our elected officials took an oath to uphold. Personally I think you let these folks off too easily.

But what do I know. I only know the history of our involvement in the middle east and how it has provoked all of the anger of the muslim world against us.

The only ones taking away our freedoms are the people in Washington DC. The terrorists have done absolutely nothing to take away our freedoms. They never had the power and they still don’t. Only our government does, but nobody stands up to them. Instead everyone goes to countries all over the world and engages in wars there. What an odd way of protecting freedom.

DeDe in Calif

September 13th, 2010
12:35 am

So sorry the trolls have invaded your blog today. Let’s get back to the topic – how do you explain or when you you talk about bad things to your children. I’ve found you give them what they can handle at the time, and as they get older, they can handle more. My now 15 yr old was a 1st grader in 2001 and we tried to keep the tv off so she wouldn’t see the people falling from the buildings etc & all the agony of the survivors & victims’ families, or that some of terrorists who flew the plane lived for a while a few miles from our house. Still she thought her best friend’s aunt was dead because she lived in NYC, so we had to explain that a lot of people who were in the towers died, but not her friend’s aunt. Now that she’s older she’s seen a lot of battlefields and historic sites in the US and Europe and knows more about the bad things that have been done over the centuries.

Teresa- I find it odd that you find Sept 11th harder to explain than OK. It’s the domestic terrorists that scare me more – who knows what’[s going to get some nut job American citizen acting crazy, and I don’t think most talk radio hosts are helping people feel neighborly. As a state (university) employee, the vilification of government workers or the government in general doesn’t help a bit. We are in our line of work because we genuinely want to help people & are willing to be paid less than we would be getting in the private sector (and yes, I did start out in the private sector before grad school). It’s nice to see that most regard the police and fire fighters as the good guys, but it’s time to understand all people working to help out society, from the teacher, trash collector, social worker, librarian, bridge builders, road repairers, and yes, the staff at the dept of motor vehicles, are likely all working in the field because they want to and they like making the world a better place. If we could all learn to hate a little less, we wouldn’t be so paranoid about a mosque/community center being built several blocks away from ground zero, we’d learn to help our our brother men & women, and we’d be more tolerant. Wars have been fought over the centuries because people cannot get along and feel that their way is the only way, and those in the way, must be eradicated.

Lady Strange

September 13th, 2010
8:36 am

My son is too young to understand. I don’t think I need to upset a 2 year old by trying to explain terrorism, etc. When he is older, yes we will talk about it.

DB

September 13th, 2010
10:52 am

Why wouldn’t you talk to your kids about something that was important in your life and to your country? We talk about World War II and Pearl Harbor, we talk about assassinations, etc — how is this any different?

David S

September 13th, 2010
2:01 pm

Troll = Truth Teller. Certainly looks like Historical Realist stayed on the subject of telling kids the truth. I guess that wasn’t the talk parents were being asked about. Just the official government version I suppose. That version is fine, but someday they figure out the truth about Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, and other fantasies too.

JOD

September 14th, 2010
11:23 am

So far I just explained to my 2-year-old that Mommy was sad on 9/11 (and I got kisses to make me feel better), but also that it is a happy day since it is her Grandfather’s birthday. It will be challenging to explain this day in the future since we honor the day but also celebrate my Dad’s birthday. It is, however, our job to explain this to her before anyone else (potentially with some kind of political agenda) does…

David S

September 14th, 2010
2:55 pm

JOD – So does someone with a political agenda mean someone who is telling the truth, or someone who is speaking the line being delivered as the truth by the current administration occupying the whitehouse?

Will your explanation be the truth, or just the one you want her to believe about how nice and wonderful the US government is to the people of the world? Or maybe how they hate us because we are free?

It seems as though 9 years later it is more than just the kids that some people want to shield from the truth of that day. There seem to be plenty of adults who still don’t think they are mature enough to handle even a discussion about the truth.

Mary

September 20th, 2010
6:37 am

We should never forget that we were attacked by the pagan Godless islamic muslins and still are. Yes we shall discuss this with our children.