Explaining 9/11 to Children

Mom's columnist reflects on that fateful day and gives advice on explaining it to our children.

“Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?”

These are the opening lyrics to a very memorable song by country singer Alan Jackson about a time in our history we can never forget. But for most of our children, they don’t know about it. For most, it's a time that they have heard about but never had to experience, and sometimes I think about how lucky they really are for that. 

For those of us who lived through it, life as we knew it was forever changed. In the hours and days that followed,  there was a sense of confusion, anger, fear, sadness, but most of all:  closeness.

I was a seventh grade teacher in New Hampshire at the time.  That day has forever bonded my second period Reading/Language Arts students; I still get messages from former students, now in their 20s, who remember how I came to the classroom after hearing the news; I was visibly shaken but didn't tell them what was wrong. Instead, I tried to get back into reading Langston Hughes’ “Thank you, Ma’am.”  I guess they knew something was up when I was holding my book upside down.  It was a bittersweet week for me: the loss of so many lives in a horrific tragedy on Tuesday, and on the previous Saturday I learned I was pregnant with my first daughter, Meghan.

Meghan is now 9, and obviously she does not remember Sept. 11, 2001.  She asks a lot about why the day was important in history, why so many people go to ceremonies, wear patriotic clothes, and are sad on the anniversary.  I thought she should know; I wanted her to understand what changed our country and the world on that September day.  Explaining 9/11 to children is a very fine dance between too much and too little information.  One thing I have learned, stick to facts and point out the positives.

Linda Ellerbee, in conjunction with Nickelodeon, did a wonderful documentary tailored to children ages 6-to-14 titled, “What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2011.”  “We’re telling kids what happened and why it’s important,” Elerbee told The Inquisitr news site (where the link is from); Elerbee has been helping children process tough topics since 1991, when Nickelodeon asked her to do a special explaining the first Iraq war. “It’s a foundation they can, and hopefully will, expand as they get older.”

The show was superb and used terms that children can understand about that fateful day and the aftermath.  Ellerbee uses factual information and also focuses on the positives that came out of that devastation; she tells the young readers that the event was a horrible tragedy, and that in the aftermath of the attacks, people went to extreme measures to help their neighbors, even if they didn't know them.

I watched the documentary with my daughter, Meghan. She now has a better understanding about why this date affects so many people worldwide.

I also try to engage my two daughters into Sept. 11 remembrance activities. On each anniversary of the terrorist attacks,  I have taken my two girls to Sherwood Island State Park in Westport to the 9/11 Living Memorial.  Each year, we bring flowers, and the girls lay them down (see photo).  I reflect and explain it's a place and time to be quiet and think about how lucky we are to be living in a wonderful country and to our freedom and each other.

This year, it will be even more important.  Not only is it the 10-year anniversary, but now Meghan knows a little more about why we make the trip.  And my youngest is learning more, too: Katelyn, 6, knows that “people who didn’t like America tried to hurt us on that day.”  The girls have pride in their country; they asked to put the flag out on a recent morning.  They automatically knew, “Sunday we are going to Sherwood Island to bring flowers for the people who died, right?” 

Sometimes I sit back and think how lucky they are to be kids.  There is even a pang of jealousy as I see them running around the beach while I sit and look at the names of the victims.  The girls may hear about the tragedy, but they can never know the hurt, the anguish, the disbelief and the utter shock we all felt.

When I think of names on the memorial, I ask God to bless the victims on that day: the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children, firefighters, police, emergency responders; and everyone else we lost. Your spirits live on in our children; they and their carefree innocence is what I look at when I see the future of our country.

janet hautanen September 11, 2011 at 12:27 PM
My daughter was a student in Becky's class on that fateful day, and I am forever grateful for the professional and compassion she showed to the children. It is true, her students, now young adults continue to have a strong bond of friendship and respect with her, as do many of us parents. Thank you, Becky, for all you do to make the world a better place !
Becky Gall- Piorek September 11, 2011 at 01:43 PM
Thank you so much! I'm very touched:)
carol September 11, 2011 at 02:21 PM
Wonderful perspective, Becky. Thank you.
Heidi September 11, 2011 at 03:09 PM
Rachel Figueroa September 12, 2011 at 02:04 AM


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