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How To Talk To Kids About 9/11

How To Talk To Kids About 9/11

Jessica Butler
How To Talk To Your Kids About 9/11, Raise Magazine

How is it that the parents I know, who take their five-year-olds to protests, thoughtfully confront George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter, and teach their children about consent from the first time they change a diaper, choose to ignore such a defining moment in our country?

Levon was just four years old when we first explained 9/11 to him. We were vacationing in New York and unexpectedly found ourselves just blocks from the memorial. I had only a few minutes to come up with an age appropriate explanation, and since we were getting on a plane the next day, I chose to leave the plane crash out of the narrative. We arrived at the fountains,  and I explained, “There used to be two buildings here. But there was a very bad fire and the buildings fell down, and a lot of people died. New York built this fountain to remember all of the people who died here.”

“Did bad guys start the fire?”

“Yes.”

I have no idea what made Levon ask that, but he did, and I answered truthfully. He understands the tragedy of fire based on his own experience with the Woolsey Fire, and he understands good guys versus bad, so I did my best to provide him with an explanation he could make sense of, and he accepted it very matter-of-factly.

Had we not found ourselves at the memorial that day, I am confident we still would have approached the subject with him that fall. My oldest stepson lives in New York. My husband was born in the state and attended NYU, we got married in Central Park, and I spent the summer of 2001 living in Manhattan, moving back just weeks before the attack. I can’t imagine letting the day go by without acknowledging it in our home. So I was shocked to learn that many of Levon’s peers have never been told about the event.

“Most of us are asked not to speak about it,” one veteran kindergarten teacher explained.

How is it that the parents I know, who take their five-year-olds to protests, thoughtfully confront George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter, and teach their children about consent from the first time they change a diaper, choose to ignore such a defining moment in our country?

I was even more stunned to learn that many teachers of young children choose not to mention the event, while others are specifically instructed by their administration to avoid it. “Most of us are asked not to speak about it,” one veteran kindergarten teacher explained. “We can’t even share about the Lincoln assassination – only the positive events of his life.” While I don’t expect the Holocaust or Vietnam to be part of the kindergarten curriculum, I feel that honoring the victims and first responders of September 11th is just as important as educating our children on the social injustice of today’s America, which we all seem to agree on. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, I consider 9/11 to be one the most defining events of our country. It’s important to me that my son understand and honor the day, and equally important that I find a way to explain it without traumatizing him.

Five-year-olds retain nothing without repetition, so this year’s explanation will be like new to Levon. I reached out to his phenomenal TK teacher from last year to ask her advice, and as always, she came through: “Focus on the kindness, the helpers, and the empathy.” There’s a reason I call her Mrs. Rogers.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

This year, when Levon asks about September 11th, I’ll explain that when Mommy was in college, just like Henry is now, a very scary thing happened in New York. Two buildings caught on fire, and they fell down. The people inside were hurt, and all of the elevators were broken, so the people who use wheelchairs couldn’t get down the stairs. Policemen and firemen and EMTs came to help, and some of the people who were inside the building when it fell carried the people who couldn’t walk. All the people who lived in New York brought food and water to the helpers, and every year, on September 11th, we celebrate all of the people who helped New York City.

Today and always, may we honor the helpers.

How To Talk To Your Kids About 9/11, Raise Magazine
How old were your children when they learned about 9/11? I’d love to hear how you shared the story with them.
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