For many adults, September 11, 2001, feels like yesterday. Almost everyone in the United States and beyond can remember where they were and what they were doing when the World Trade Center in Manhattan was attacked by terrorists on that tragic day. Many New Yorkers vividly remember what the weather was like, what part of the city they were in—and what they saw. While most of us will never forget that terrible day, an event that took place 21 years ago can seem like another era to children. But there are many ways parents can talk to their kids about September 11, a discussion that can provide a powerful and useful lesson in resilience, perseverance and community for younger children.
We connected with Jan Helson, co-founder and board chair of Global Game Changers. The nonprofit provides social-emotional learning curricula for younger students. It also has a 9/11 Lesson website designed to help kids understand the tragedy with virtual galleries, interactive activities and more.
Approach the Subject Delicately
Helson explained that it’s important to approach September 11 delicately with younger children.
“Many lives were lost on 9/11, so it is important to be sensitive when sharing anything with a younger child about the events. It can provide a rich history lesson when taught properly,” she said.
She also explained the importance of focusing on the heroes and remembering the positives when broaching the topic with kids of all ages.
“Although 9/11 was a tragic event with widespread consequences, help kids focus on the positive. Integrating heroic stories of familiar figures – firefighters, EMTs and police officers – will help kids feel less scared,” Helson said. “Older kids may connect to the stories of everyday people who stepped up on that day and in the days afterwards to help.”
How To Talk To Your Kids About September 11
Here are some additional tips from Helson that parents can use when talking with kids about September 11.
- Check your vocabulary. Young kids don’t have the nuance or ability to understand some of the bigger terms you might associate with 9/11. These include. “radical Islam,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and “terrorism.” Consider using terms that children can understand, such as “problem,” “solution,” “hurt,” “afraid,” and “helper.” For kids younger than 10, you might say, “In New York and Washington, D.C. some bad people flew planes into buildings. Many people were hurt and many people were afraid. In fact, that’s what the bad guys wanted.”
- Be knowledgeable: Even if you have clear and vivid memories of 9/11, brush up on your facts. Kids will ask a variety of questions, so you will want to be prepared. In case they come up with a question you don’t know the answer to, don’t make up an answer. You can either say “I’ll find out and let you know,” or you can search for the answer together.
- Know your audience. Different children have different capacities for understanding events in the news. Broadly speaking, children younger than 10 tend to internalize events and are less able to separate what happened to other people from what happened to themselves. By contrast, children older than 10 are less likely to internalize something like 9/11, and thus less likely to be scared for their own safety.
- Read the room. Learning about 9/11 can bring up difficult feelings of loss and fear for some children. Be alert to those signs in your children. Allow for some quiet space to think and reflect.
Have a Purpose in Mind
It’s important to know the ultimate lesson you’re trying to convey from your conversation. Here are three goals to keep in mind:
- There was an event called 9/11 that impacted the entire country.
- There were many heroes as a result of that day.
- Although we were faced with tragedy, we emerged triumphant.
Explore September 11’s Remnants Today
Remind kids that we have not had an attack like 9/11 since that day 21 years ago. If your children are familiar with air travel, you can tell them how airport security has changed to keep us safe. Numerous cities across the United States have also created their own 9/11 memorials, so you might plan a visit to one close to your home.
The annual Staten Island 9/11 Memorial Ceremony will be at the Postcards 9/11 Memorial on the waterfront in St. George, Sept. 11, at 6:30pm. It is open to the public.
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