Saturday, September 10, 2011

What to Teach Your Children about 9/11

As parents, we teach our children tons of things.  We teach them to walk and to talk, to say please and thank you, to tie their shoes and to pick up their toys.  We teach them to be respectful to their grandparents and other adults, to cooperate when it is appropriate and to go their own way when it is appropriate, and to follow the religious, spiritual, or moral values of our chosen community.  And, if you homeschool, you also teach them all the subjects from Algebra to Zoology.

But one of the most important things that we teach them is what to do when tragedy strikes.  It is easy to be honest and brave and generous and considerate when everything is going your way.  It is when it is not--when we must face the sad, the unthinkable, even the horrific--that shows our true mettle.

So there has been much discussion in the past few weeks about what to teach our young adolescents, who were alive, but not cognisant at the time, about 9/11.  How much should we tell them?  Should we show them the actual videos of the death and the destruction, the fear and the courage, or will that still be too intense for this age?  How do we inform them about terrorism without making them live in fear?  And these are all good question to consider.  Undoubtedly, our students have been receiving more facts about this event in their schools, churches, and homes.

But even more important, I think, is how we model for them how to react to an act like this.  By the way we behave, are we teaching them to blame an entire race of people for the actions of a few?  Are we teaching them to hold onto anger, because of our own beliefs that forgiving will mean forgetting?  Or are we teaching them to look for what good we can, to see the heroism instead of just the terrorism, and to find a positive lesson even as we grieve for what has been lost?

Today, my son and I got to participate in a wonderful way to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  My friend Marcia, who runs the Triangle Kindness Project, lead a group of us in appreciating a few of our local fire fighters.  We delivered cakes donated by Harris Teeter, The Chef's Academy, and TKP to three of the area fire stations.

Terrible picture, but this Harris Teeter cake actually has a picture of one of the fire stations

Marcia read them a wonderful letter she wrote that acknowledged them not only for their service, but the selfless character they demonstrate through their jobs, which is a great role model for all of us, but especially for our children.

The guys were so appreciative, and so nice to us.  They let us try on JUST the air canisters worn by the fire fighters on 9/11 (that alone weighed 60 pounds) to give us an idea of what it was like to charge into the building with a hundred pounds of gear on, and even pulled out some fire engines for us to check out.

At another fire station, most of the fire fighters were out, preparing for some 9/11 commemoration events tomorrow.  The one who remained, however, was working with the Junior Explorers program, which gives high schoolers who are considering a career as a fire fighter after they graduate some hands-on experience in the fire fighting field.

I found it to be a really wonderful way to channel all those feeling and energy we have on 9/11 into a positive expression.  I'm really thankful that my son and I had the opportunity to participate.

I also have to acknowledge my son for his willingness to take part in this activity, which was fairly emotional for me.  Because he is such a wonderful drawer, I asked him to make a card for each of the fire stations.  I left the cards up to his discretion, but told him they should be respectful of the occasion.  He went off and worked on them, and ending up drawing hoses and fire hydrants and SUCH a better fire engine than I could ever draw.

But the best thing of all was what he wrote inside.  He is not like me, who tends to write on and on and on (as any regular reader knows).  In each card, he wrote just a single expression:

Thank you for your immeasurable service.

Then he signed it with his name, followed by "An appreciative kid."

And, really, who could improve on that?


  1. I think I somewhat messed it up for K back then. I sincerely thought a war is likely to start. I was on campus, with then 3yo K in tow, when I learned what happened. I grabbed her and went to get food and water and medicine supplies right away. This is my instinctive reaction to any disaster, from the past experience.

    I remember trying to instruct her on the use of a gas mask and some first aid procedures, because it dawned on me she would resist it if she did not know... It makes little sense retrospectively. I think she has not seen me in this state before and got scared. We saw some students in the military uniform soon, and she asked if they were going to attack us. I think it was all a blur - she recognized they were military, but thought they were from a conquering army in that hypothetical war I tried to explain. She would not watch any war or any violent movies for the next several years. I think this was the first time she realized wars can happen locally, where we currently are, rather than in fiction or history.

    Since the first hours, my message about disasters has been the same, but more measured, after I calmed down. Make sure you take care of the essentials for the family (water/food/medicine/safety). Know how to help others (e.g., don't dig people out if they've been under the debris for hours, without a tight bandage). Cope yourself, help as you can, run away if you can't.

    As far as dangers go, I think it's most important to drill kids on car safety. About 45k people die in the US each year to car accidents. Worldwide terrorism, even counting "hot spots" like war zones, is only 5% of that - not worth training for, specifically. As for wars themselves, my family history says "be as far away from them as you can" as the best coping mechanism.

  2. That's a great perspective, Maria. Thanks for the story. I think one reason 9/11 has had such a big impact on Americans is that we were all like your 3 year old--it didn't occur to us that war could happen here. We've been so spoiled for generations in which the only war that took place in our country were Americans versus Americans (well, on the mainland, at least). The idea that our physical separation from most of the rest of the world wouldn't necessarily protect us was a big wake-up call to our collective psyche.

  3. I read some essays by psychologists since then, on what to do about kids and disasters like 9/11, because I was concerned. Turns out the approach I took made sense overall, minus the personal panic I experienced. This is no excuse, but as a person from Eastern Europe with Jewish roots, and an immigrant, any war has certain very scary personal implications. It makes a lot of difference when all your living relatives and friends from one generation up (and some from your generation) have been touched by a war in some ways.

    Anyway, the approach these psychologists suggested was to study simple, accessible steps one can do to prepare and to increase personal safety. It makes a huge difference for kids and adults too when there are things they are able to do, personally. The second powerful idea for feeling better is the focus on helping others. Remember our "I wish you health and happiness" psych class activity? So, learning some first aid and maybe training on skills like making a rudimentary face mask is a good idea overall. It makes kids feel constructive.