[password]In the decade since 9/11, parents have struggled with the question of how much to tell kids about that infamous day.
The details are grisly — terrorists slitting the throats of airplane passengers with box-cutters; scores of people jumping to their death; an iconic city covered in ash.
In 2001, my oldest two children were 1 and 3 years old.
On that day, and in the days that followed, I did everything to prevent them from learning about what had occurred. It seemed to me then that telling them about the tragedy would only cause fear and panic.
And so, I said nothing.
Weeks turned to months, months turned to years, and still I said nothing. Let them be kids, I thought. They’ll have plenty of time to worry later.
Then, four years ago, on a clear September day (not unlike the day of the attacks) I was driving with my daughters (then in the fifth and third grades). They were telling me about their week at school, and my third-grader mentioned that they had observed a moment of silence on the 11th.
“Do you know what happened on 9/11?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said matter-of-factly, “some bad guys flew planes into these tall buildings and killed a bunch of people.”
I was shocked. Despite my efforts to protect her from the horrors of that day, the story of 9/11 had become part of her consciousness.
She paused and asked, “How come you never told me about 9/11, Mom?”
“I thought it would scare you too much,” I answered, truthfully.
“Why would it scare me?” she continued, “It happened so long ago.”
And then it hit me: Children who were not affected directly by 9/11 consider the events of that day the same way that we, as kids, considered Pearl Harbor or the Civil War — as historical occurrences with little bearing on daily life.
The realization was bittersweet. I was glad that my daughters were not frightened or worried about when the next attack might occur. And yet, I felt concerned that their entire generation was stumbling toward complacency.
Since then, I have thought a lot about what we should teach our children about 9/11.
Certainly by middle school, all kids are mature enough to understand the facts of what happened.
But they must also understand why it happened. They must be taught that the terrorists attacked our country because America is a symbol of liberty. America stands alone in the world as a beacon of hope and a refuge for the oppressed. The terrorists attacked us because of our deep commitment to freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law — ideals anathema to Islamic fundamentalism.
Teachers must explain this clearly and not lend legitimacy to absurd notions that terrorists targeted us because of our support for Israel or because of our nation’s relative wealth.
Moreover, to ensure that young people understand what is at stake in the war on terror, schools must provide our students with a firm grounding in our country’s founding principles, the structure of our government, and the events that contributed to our unique American identity.
Did the events of 9/11 put American ideals to the test? Yes. But they survived. Liberty and the rule of law remain intact. And, contrary to fears of a large-scale backlash against Muslim Americans, the vast majority of Americans have responded to their Muslim compatriots with empathy and compassion.
The story of 9/11 is the story of the resilience of the American spirit and of American ideals. We must make sure it is a story we tell clearly and often.[/password]