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.