I didn’t know why we were let out of school early on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was 7 years old, a second-grader.
My dad picked me up that day. “Dad? What’s going on?” I asked from the passenger seat.
He tried to smile at me reassuringly, but noticeably gripped the steering wheel a bit tighter.
Fifteen years later, our country is reeling from yet another horrific attack. We posted an article on our Facebook page on June 13—“How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism”—the day after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others. Some of the responses to that post shocked me.
“I don’t need to explain this unfortunate event to my kids,” wrote one user. “It is an adult matter and they are children.”
“I don’t talk to my kids about this kind of stuff,” wrote another. “I feel that it’s inappropriate and would create fear and anxiety.”
The article we posted quoted Denise Daniels, a child development and parenting expert, who has helped children cope in the wake of tragedies such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia: “Kids are very intuitive and perceptive,” she says. “If they don’t hear about it on television, other kids are going to be talking about it. They can see that their parents maybe are more concerned than usual, paying more attention to the TV. They may overhear adult conversations. Even if they don't know what it is, they still know something's happening. Having information can actually help take away the confusion, and help kids feel better."
We’d all like to live in a world without terrorism, where we wouldn't have to explain acts of terror to our innocent kids when we’re still struggling to comprehend them ourselves. But we can’t expect to shield our kids from fear and anxiety, only lessen it.
Daniels advises parents to answer any questions their kids have in language they can understand. “A 4-year-old would say, ‘Something bad happened,’ and there are ‘bad guys,’ because developmentally, a child that age would be thinking bad guys, good guys, and there’s nothing in between,” she says. “You can say, ‘Yes, there were some bad people, and they hurt some people because they were very angry, and we know that it’s never okay to hurt ourselves or to hurt somebody else because we’re feeling angry.’”
In the case of the attack against the LGBTQ community in Orlando, parents can take that lesson a step further and, without getting too much into the politics of it all, say, “It’s never okay to hurt other people because they’re different from you.” It’s important to remember that bigotry is not born, but it is learned. As a parent, you can’t control everything your kids are exposed to, but you can pick the lessons you teach them.
When I got home from school on September 11, 2001, I found my aunt sitting on the floor an inch away from the television. She called me over to her and we watched the news together. The same footage of the plane hitting the first tower played on a loop in the corner of the screen. “I wanted you to have this memory,” she told me when I asked her about that moment years later.
Terrorism isn’t an “adult matter.” It wasn’t an adult matter for the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary. It’s not an adult matter for the children of the at least 1,065 victims who have died in mass shootings in the United States since then. And it’s not an adult matter for the kids in Syria who know daily acts of terror as their only reality. Educating your kids about terrorism puts them on the path to becoming informed, compassionate, and tolerant adults. Because fighting back against hate starts with not living in the dark.