'Mommy, What's 9/11?' -- How to Teach Our Kids About the Day That Shaped Their World

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Those of us who were adults on September 11, 2001, can tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing on "the day the world stopped turning." Some were thousands of miles from the East Coast and wept in front of their TVs as the horrors unfolded. Others, like me, were closer to the events -- I worked in midtown Manhattan and saw the impact of the second jet from my bus window en route to the office -- and wondered if we would live to see another day.


Still others -- far, far too many others -- had their lives shattered in those unspeakable hours with the loss of their loved ones, friends, colleagues. Survivors grapple with lingering physical and emotional scars and that nagging guilt: Why me?

For more than a decade now, we've paused every September at this time to grieve, pray, and remember as a nation. Our flags wave, our candles burn, our tears fall, our patriotism swells. And we vow fiercely: Never forget! Never again! Always in our hearts!

But something else happened in those years. Life went on. We began, slowly, to heal. We dared to laugh, to have fun, to love again. And we had children. Lots of them.

Now, the oldest of this post-9/11 generation are entering high school; the youngest are still waiting to be born. And we, their parents, face a unique challenge: How do we teach our children about a day they never knew, but which colored the world they live in now?

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To our children, the Twin Towers have never existed, the Pentagon is secure, and Shanksville is a little place on a map. They participate in school lockdown drills without realizing that this wasn't always a part of American students' days. They attend 9/11 memorial services, hold their candles, and watch their parents cry as the crowd sings "God Bless America," but their own eyes stay dry. Our preschoolers don't even realize that this September day has a significance. As their moms try to watch the memorial ceremony, they beg us to change the channel to PAW Patrol.

We can share our memories with our children, but hearing about a memory isn't the same as experiencing it firsthand. We can't expect them to feel that wrenching pain of loss, the fear and confusion. We can show them the September 11 memorial site, but that's not the same thing as having them walk through the eerily quiet streets, trembling and covered with white residue, desperate to feel safe again.

We can't expect this new generation to be mournful over people they never knew, to regret the loss of the two towers that were never part of their childhood. It's the same way our parents and grandparents must feel when they tell us about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy and King assassinations, or the carnage of Vietnam. We adult children can appreciate the importance and somberness of the events and how they shaped our history, but we don't have that jolt of recognition that goes along with a personal memory.

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So what can we do to keep September 11 from becoming just another dusty date in the history books decades from now? For one, we can keep on sharing our own recollections and feelings and letting our children know how the events affected us. We can write them down for our future grandchildren.

We can let our teens watch footage of the attacks and have them read obituaries. They need to know that the 2,996 people who died weren't just names on a page, but people with lives, families, jobs, and hobbies. We can take them to the memorial sites to help them get a sense of time and place.

We can answer our little ones' questions honestly yet simply, being careful not to frighten them. We can explain that it's hard to know why people do terrible things, and that it makes us sad and mad. But always, we must reassure them that we will do everything we can to keep them safe.

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Most of all, we can raise our children to become the kind of adults who will make this world a happier and more peaceful place to live. We can teach them the power of compassion, generosity, and helpfulness -- and demonstrate it by our own example. We can show them the heroism that goes on every day in our neighborhood, our state, our country, our world.

We can lead by example, so our kids know that hateful speech and acts are unacceptable in our homes -- and that we should step in to stop them when they occur. We can become proactive against bullying in our schools. We can refuse to give in to our fears and prejudices against genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations that we don't fully understand, and refuse to let our children fall prey to their fears, too.

We can reach out to those in need by giving charity and doing volunteer work, and insist that our children do the same. We must teach them that their purpose in the world goes beyond their own wants.

Most of all, we must stress to our children -- and all the generations that will follow them -- that September 11 will always be a part of American history, even if it isn't a part of their personal one. We all have an obligation not only to remember it, but also to do our part to keep this history from repeating itself. 

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