Dispensing parenting pearls is easier than following them — hence my proficiency now in urging others to talk sensibly and sensitively with their children about 9/11 a decade after my own children experienced far too much television footage filled with fire, tears and trauma.
They’re old enough now that I can indulge my instinct to spend much of the weekend following live coverage of 9/11 memorial events — in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania — on television, radio and internet. And I can reflect on ways I might have done a better job talking with them about 9/11 in its immediate aftermath.
Children born in 2001 are now elementary school students old enough to feel genuine curiosity about events of that day, but young enough to need adult support as they make their way through atttempting to grasp and come to terms with them.
The national 9/11 Memorial in New York City, which provides information on the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath at www.911memorial.org, offers several
“broad guidelines” helpful to parents of children from preschoolers to teens:
- Listen. Actively listen to their thoughts, attend to their body language, validate their emotions, and encourage respectful conversation and discussions.
- Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Let the child’s interests and thoughts guide the conversation. Use age-appropriate language and be aware of your tone, reassuring children about their own safety and allowing them to express concerns about 9/11 and its aftermath in more depth.
- Answer questions about the attacks with facts. Be prepared for your child to ask questions about death when dicussing 9/11, and to answer these questions in a way that is honest and developmentally-appropriate.
- Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest. Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and to explore the questions together.
- Be specific. The story of 9/11 is actually thousands of individual stories. Highlight those specific stories to help humanize the events, and avoid stereotypes and simplifications.
- Emotions vary. Children’s responses vary widely depending on their age, personality, actual or perceived ethnic or religious background, connection to the attacks, and exposure to other past traumatic experiences.
- Monitor the TV and internet. Programs may include footage from 9/11 itself, and include scenes that are not appropriate for children to view at all or without supervision.
- Know yourself. Recognizing your feelings beforehand and then sharing them honestly with your children offers them a model in their own difficult conversations and will help engender a safe, trusting environment.
- Emphasize hope. Help your children recognize how their own compassion can prevent future acts of intolerance and violence by reminding them to express their ideas respectfully and to treat people who are different from themselves with kindness.
The 9/11 Memorial website offers several resources for parents and teachers — including lesson plans and 9/11 FAQs. Also sections on “Tribute Art & 9/11″ and “The Spirit of Volunteerism.” Plus links to other “suggested resources.”
Whatever the topic, children need to know that it’s okay to have questions, to express their thoughts and feelings. They need to know their parents will listen with an open mind, not passing judgement or pushing their own agenda.
We can’t guarantee that our children will never come to harm, but we can offer them spaces and places that feel physically, emotionally and intellectually safe.
Note: Artwork by children at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center recently exhibited at the Arizona State Capitol by Young Arts Arizona (www.youngartsaz.org). Photos by Lynn Trimble.
Coming up: Broadway remembers 9/11, Arizona’s 9/11 memorial