Teaching 9/11 on 9/12 & Beyond

Mon, September 12, 2011

Changing the World

Much of the nation spent this past 9/11 remembering the horrible events of that day a decade ago.  How is it possible that it’s been ten years since we watched the planes hit the World Trade Center buildings and then stared as they collapsed like precarious children’s block towers?

A ten year anniversary of any event, happy or horrible, is a significant milestone and it was certainly appropriate for those of us who lived through that horrible day to grieve and honor the memories of those we lost.  But it was also a day I spent pondering how we’ve failed to move beyond our mid-20th century ideas of the world in this 21st century age of terror guerrilla warfare, and how I could impart to our daughter the importance of giving the observance her attention.

For those of us who were adults on September 11, 2001, the images of horror are seared into our collective psyche.  As I watched part of the memorial service in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 that was headed for the U.S.  Capitol was forced down in a field by the planes’ passengers in order to prevent that from happening — I realized that the children who were singing hadn’t even been alive on 9/11.  And I wondered whether there’s a way to talk about the events of 9/11 with our children who weren’t born yet or who weren’t old enough to be aware of the significance, in a way that means something more to them than a historical footnote they’ll be tested on in high school?

PunditGirl was 1 1/2 years old on 9/11.  Now, as a brand new middle-schooler, her dad and I figured it was the right time for her to hear more about what happened that day.  We’ve had a few conversations with her in past years about the significance of 9/11, and of course she’s heard about the terror attacks at school.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that it might not be possible to explain to young children the level of evil and hate that was required to make 9/11 happen.

I heard the words coming out of our mouths — “Mom, are you crying?”  — and saw PunditGirl nod her head, taking in the words about terror and suicide plans and why people in other countries could possibly hate her home so much that they’d be willing to do what they did.

She was too young to remember the constant buzz of fighter jets over our neighborhood in the immediate weeks and months after 9/11.  She doesn’t have a recollection of the fact that my best friend who was visiting from Alaska was stranded with us an extra week until airlines started flying again.  I’m not sure if she ever picked up on the constant anxiety we felt for so long.  And because none of it effected her personally — at least not in her mind — the 10th anniversary remembrances only held her interest for a few minutes, then it was time to get back to reading, hanging out in her room (as the tween that she is) listening to Taylor Swift and counting the minutes until her afternoon swimming pool get-together.

I question whether it’s possible for our children to do more than recite the facts of 9/11.  Are we doomed to have those events fade with the memories of those who lived it, news accounts and tributes being not quite enough to help our kids realize that it’s important for them, at a certain age, to understand the national horror and helplessness we all felt?  Or will they look back on the September 11 terror attacks in the way that certain generations now view the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War — events recounted in history books that don’t quite convey the full feelings of despair, fear and anger of those who lived them.

So I’m feeling at a bit of a loss today.  I worry that I’ve fallen down on the parenting job by not being able to have my 6th grader understand why so many things seemed to come to a halt on 9/11/11.  The world seems relatively safe to her, even though we adults know nothing could be further from the truth.  So is there a way to put 9/11 history into a truly meaningful context for our kids?   Or is the fact that the world will always be on the brink just a lesson that each generation has to learn for itself?

Image via 911memorial.org

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5 Responses to “Teaching 9/11 on 9/12 & Beyond”

  1. Debbie Owensby Moore Says:

    Oh, Joanne. I struggled with the same issue yesterday. I couldn’t even get my 13-yr-old to read my journal entry for 9/11/01 much less watch any of the television coverage. Maybe you are right about young children will only be able to recite the facts. Every generation has crises of their own to live through. If they felt emotional connected to all previous events in history, it might be emotionally debilitating. Unfortunately, that is probably why history often repeats itself.

  2. Emily Says:

    To an 11-year-old it is probably still pretty abstract. I don’t know if your parents tried to explain to you where they were when Pearl Harbor got bombed but I’m sure you probably had the same type of reaction. It was horrible but it was oh so long ago and hey didn’t we win after all? Living in DC we all take the extra security now for granted, but when you by it you can explain to her that before 9/11 it wasn’t like that.

  3. PunditMom Says:

    Emily, That’s true enough — stories from my parents and grandparents about living through the Depression and the sacrifices during WWII were pretty abstract to my siblings and me. It’s the emotions that keep ups connected to tbe tragedies of our lives, whether they are personal to us or collective.

  4. Lisse Says:

    We talked about it with our 5th grader last night. Frankly, I’m not sure this is something that parents can adequately address. There are some things that only age and experience can give appropriate context to.

    JFK was killed before I was born. He has been a hero in the eyes of my parents and many of their generation. I memorized his inaugural address and other speeches for Forensics competitions in middle school, and volunteered on one of Ted’s later campaigns in college. But I was in my 30s watching archived old news reports at the Dallas Book Depository, before it really hit me how devastating the assassination was to our country.

    Navigating complex, especially hurtful, emotions in others is some of the hardest work that we do as parents. With regard to this specific attack, you and I both know that there are plenty of adults who don’t get it either.

  5. Michael Says:

    It is hard to convey the same anxiety and feelings that we had on that day to children or others who didn’t experience it. Unfortunately, we are doomed to repeat the past if we can’t remember it. The national mindset will last for the generations that experienced it and then most likely fade away.

    Think about your grandparents and others who experienced the Great Depression or WWII. Their lives were shaped by those events, but the younger generations were not.

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