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Talking with Kids about 9/11: Lessons in Compassion

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With the ten year anniversary of September 11th looming near, many parents may be wondering what to tell their children about that infamous day. Most of today’s school age kids were either very young children or not yet born when the attacks occurred. They likely don’t have their own memories of the day, but have grown up in a world significantly impacted by its events. Terror alerts, Al-Qaeda, the TSA, and the wars of Iraq & Afghanistan have been a constant backdrop to their young lives.

(photo credit)

For many parents this anniversary may bring up surprising emotions including memories of the trauma they experienced on 9-11 and the days and months following as we learned more and more about the events surrounding the attacks and the people whose lives were lost. I know it has taken me off guard as I have watched some of the interviews and reflections on television this last week and begun those conversations with my own children.

I believe this anniversary is an excellent opportunity to teach our children about the good in the world rather than focus on the terrorism that occurred. I still look back in awe at the courage, bravery, and generosity exhibited by people from all walks of life. Strangers risking and giving their lives for each other without hesitation or expectation. People from around the world offering their support. It was truly amazing to witness. Telling these stories honors the lives of those who were killed and helps our children see the good in humanity.

Many children know the basic facts about planes flying into the twin towers. Others may also know that there were two other planes involved, one hitting the Pentagon and the other missing its target due to the strength and determination of the passengers aboard. Sticking to basics facts like these and avoiding too much detail about the gore and horror of those events is important to prevent young children from becoming unnecessarily fearful. Older children (tweens and teens) may have more questions and be prepared to talk about it on a different level.

In your conversations with your children, start by asking what they already know about the day. Let their answers and level of interest guide where you go in the conversation and how much additional information to share. Support them by answering their questions. If you need to process your own feelings, do so with another adult.

Children often ask why the terrorists committed such a horrible act against our country. I believe this is an opportunity to discuss how hatred, intolerance, and judgment can blind people into de-humanizing others and believing it is justifiable to harm and kill them. Teaching and living with compassion, tolerance, and understanding is the antidote to terrorism and hatred. I also believe it is important to acknowledge that as individuals we often start down that same road when we assume values and beliefs about people based on the way they look, eat, dress, speak, or worship. We do this frequently without even realizing it and we teach this to our children through our behavior. We can teach acceptance and kindness instead when we raise our awareness of our own actions.

There are many lessons to be learned from 9-11. One I hope to pass on to my children is to live with an open heart, a curious mind, and willingness to accept all people for who they are no matter how different they seem from us. What lessons will you choose to pass on?

“Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.” ~Buddha

For more information on talking with kids about disasters click here. Find additional articles specifically related to 9-11 at 9-11 Heroes and The Huffington Post.

Lisa Vratny-Smith, MSW, RYT, is the mom of two big brained boys who wears many hats including school social worker, yoga teacher, giggle aficionado, author of Laughing Yoga Mama blog, and editor of Mile High Mamas Mama Drama column.

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