So What Do We Tell the Children?

A word before the start: Y’all come here with your own religious and political beliefs, and I think that’s marvelous. I ask you to remember, should you bring up or respond to something religious or political here, you’re sitting in my living room with my guests, and I treat all my guests with equal respect in the expectation all my guests will do the same. 🙂

TyPuppy 001
My son, age 5

My son was almost five years old on September 11, 2001. Among the gazillion concerns and fears of the ensuing days was a very important one: how do I balance my need to know what’s happening with the need to protect my son? And how do I teach my son about what’s happening with scaring him or, on the flipside, leaving him ignorant?

“Balance” is the key here. Recently, Maggie Hogarth shared her thoughts on how a sheltered childhood altered her view of the world in negative ways, and there is much there that applies to this discussion.

While I wanted to hide everything from my son—everything! Anything that would disrupt his joy and happiness!—it wasn’t at all a realistic or responsible choice. At the same time, I needed to stay informed, especially in those first few days. Remember, it wasn’t known if the attacks were isolated or, shall we say, introductory. And no one knew the extent to which our military would be mobilized, if there’d be a new draft, if the government was going to institute new restrictions, if survivors were going to be found…

Yesterday, I found myself in a vaguely similar situation with my nephews. I say, “vaguely” because the attacks in Lebanon and France happened on the other side of the ocean, so the level of reactive fear was much lower. But there remained my need to know what was happening, to stay in touch with a couple people, and so forth. It all tossed me back to parenting post-9/11.

I don’t think there is an absolute and universal “right” choice because there are so many variables. The temperament and maturity of the child. The existing knowledge base. The willingness and ability of the parent to make age-appropriate explanations. The potential impact of the event on daily life. The importance of current events to the family. On and on and on.

So I’m not coming from the perspective of some childhood expert wanting to tell everyone the One True Way to communicate with all children in the aftermath of any and all terrible events. I’m just sharing what worked for me, to the best of my memory.

Images versus information: There was a lot of 9/11 footage, and it looped endlessly. You could scarcely hear relevant updates without the images flowing in the background. Learning new information via television was inseparable from watching planes fly into buildings, people covered in blood and dust fleeing the collapse, the smoldering Pentagon. And as we all know, images stick even when we don’t understand the words that go with them.

So I shielded my son from those images, especially in the early days. If the news was on while he was in the room, I kept my finger on the remote for quick channel-changes. He caught a few images here and there at first, but says today he can’t separate what he saw in real-time from documentaries he watched later.

Compared to 2001, the information outlets one can access via the internet are incredible in their scope, so television images are not as likely to be of concern, maybe? I know I found myself ducking into the next room with my tablet so I could get updates without putting them in front of my nephews.

Information versus ignorance: As much as I wished I didn’t have to explain hard things to my child, I wished much more for my child to understand his world and the context of world events. That doesn’t mean I sat my not-quite-five-year-old down to explain, with charts and maps and historical references, the details of current events. I taught him about it the same way we taught anything else—with age-appropriate language and concepts.

Really, that isn’t as difficult as it sounds when you consider we do it all the time. We teach kids about the same events in history multiple times over the years. Done properly, the lessons come with greater depth, thinner layers, broader context, and wider understanding of motives and consequences as kids gain the maturity to consider and comprehend those things. Teaching current events is a little different, but many of the principles apply. If you’re not certain how to apply that idea, take a look at how a certain historical event is taught to kids about the same age as your own. Use it as a guide, and adjust it accordingly.

And what makes teaching current events a little different? Immediacy and proximity. We adults haven’t had time to process events, examine potential causes, and anticipate outcomes. Heck, most times we haven’t even had the time to learn the most basic of facts before we must explain it to children. It’s hard and it’s stressful and it’s awkward, and it’s okay to not have all the answers.

Proximity impacts what we teach, too. There was a great deal Dev didn’t need to learn about that kids living in New York did. We didn’t lose our friends and neighbors, or access to parts of our city. I would have had to engage in more detailed tellings—along with more firm context—had that been an issue.

The other “proximity” of current events like the recent one is military in nature. Don’t think for a moment deployments aren’t on the minds of many military kids. Most of them don’t get what we’d consider “age-appropriate” explanations. Their appropriateness must be tempered with the reality of parents who are absent for months and might not return, and the reasons behind the absence.

Information AND images: Eventually, little by little after 9/11, we let the images from that day be seen by our son. We made that decision based on two things. First, news outlets grew more discerning in their choices of what sort of footage to show viewers and how often it should be shown. The more disturbing images were seen less and less often. Second, my son eventually learned a measure of context for those images. Rather than be the shocking thing we had to explain, the images became part of his existing knowledge base. They were not random and unexpected threats. They belonged to a narrative he was in the process of learning.

(For some reason, I was fiercely, adamantly against my son seeing footage of the planes striking the buildings. I can’t tell you precisely why I thought that so important, but there ya go.)

Answering why: My job as a parent was to explain why a few people chose to kill many people, and do it an a way that did not engender general fear and prejudice, that did make clear judgements between right and wrong, and—just as importantly—introduce pathways for action.

When a kid is five, there isn’t much room for nuance. Just as we do not explain the intricate personal, political, social, and aspirational motives that resulted in the Revolutionary War to young children, we do not delve into the international and historical foundations of current events. So we were clear that very bad people had done something evil, and that many people had been hurt or killed because of it.

We were specific about who was at fault. We didn’t make generalizations about countries or regions, nor did we blame racial or religious groups. Conversations of how those factors were corrupted and used as excuses for evil came as he grew older. But as parents who had made a concerted effort to raise our son surrounded by diversity even though we lived where 9 of 10 people were white and 8 out 10 Christian, we weren’t about to lay any groundwork for later prejudices. So Dev didn’t learn that Muslims had killed people. He learned bad people had done it. Period.

(Later, we expanded on that to say people who called themselves Muslim did it, in the same way we’d explain that people who called themselves Christian murdered people of color. In other words, it wasn’t about the religion. It was about whether the person used religion as Evil’s front man.)

As for the fear… Well, I don’t recall Dev being afraid, which was most likely a result of his young age combined with the fact his world was still very predictable. And even though I spent a great deal of those first days frightened myself, even though I invested in go-bags and food stores, and even though I later spent countless hours searching for information on military deployments and actions, I did my best to keep that out of my dealings with Dev. I was not going to indulge in terrifying him with my own fear. That, my darlings, is just plain wrong.

For older kids, the fear will depend on the child, and I don’t think it’s a matter of maturity. Most likely it’s a combination of the ability to envision possibilities coupled with life experience. Some kids will envision the possibility of the terrible thing happening to them, their family, and their community while others will shrug secure in the knowledge it’s happening elsewhere.

There’s a fabulous Fred Rogers quote floating around lately: “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” It’s a wonderful piece of advice.

See, little kids know they’re little kids. They know helplessness in the face of large events they can scarcely understand, let alone control. But when children see helpers—whether it’s the professional first responders who pull people from burning buildings, or the stranger who opens the door to provide another stranger shelter—the world becomes less terrifying. It provides a modicum of predictability and stability. We can’t predict or stop every bad thing, they learn, but we can choose to help each other no matter what.

That’s why I truly believe the most constructive and right-affirming thing we can do as parents is model and involve our children in post-crisis action to help and serve others. If we’re helping, we’re not helpless. If we share our strength, we grow stronger. If we offer service, we become more secure in ourselves.

Sometimes we can be of direct help and service to the victims. Most times, though, our wishes in that regard exceed our reach, or our help is limited to monetary donations that, unless the kids raise the money themselves, won’t provide much of a coping-supportive experience. That’s when we open to what we can do close to home.

Does local charity help the victims in Beirut and France right now? No. There isn’t much that can right now. But we can choose how we teach our children to react to evil, and we can show them the positive alternatives to the hatred. We can teach our children to be the helpers, and in doing so, give them a sense of control in the present and a vision for the future. And that, my darlings, is the most powerful opposition we can muster.

I asked Dev this morning what he remembers about 9/11. His first memories are of how dark and quiet his preschool seemed before I arrived to take him home, and of all the flags everyone was suddenly flying. He remembers sending care packages to deployed military (and did you know you can send care packages directly to military dogs, too?), and he remembers gathering up shoes to send to kids in Afghanistan… and that’s about it.
His more firm memories of international events don’t really begin until 2003, when Iraq was invaded, and he spent years determined to join the Army as soon as possible. His military goals faded after his father’s death (and I truly don’t know why those events were connected), but he still believes it’s every person’s responsibility to step in when needed to help and protect those who need it.

He had some cynical responses to the events of the last couple days (“Mom, how long do you think it’ll take all the presidential candidates to use this in their ads? I’m thinking eight hours.”), and some incredibly angry, profanity-filled reactions. And he said he didn’t sleep well last night after having a nightmare he doesn’t want to share.

But he also had empathetic responses, like tearing up when he heard of a man helping to pull people across rooftops to escape murder, and when he mentioned refugees who desperately need sanctuary facing even greater distrust and disdain. And he offered to help babysit his youngest nephew today, too, because, well, helping is what you do when the world slips sideways.

All of his responses as a young adult are products of his childhood experiences. From here on out, he has to make choices about not only how those responses will form his adult person, but how they will impact those around him—including, perhaps some day, his own children.

He’s choosing now how he will shape the generation that comes after him.

…which is really what this entire post is about.


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