September 11, 2001–Explaining Terrorism To A 5 Year Old

In September 2001 our older daughter was 5, a brand-new kindergartener, and her sister was a 3 year old pre-schooler.  For us, like most families, the 11th was a normal Tuesday that became a day we would always remember when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field near Pittsburgh.

At the time I was an English teacher in a high school.  When I learned during my planning period about the breaking news from the Twin Towers, I called my wife to make sure she knew what was happening and to ask whether a family friend still worked in the WTC.  (He did not.)  We decided our kindergartener was safe and happy in school, so she should stay there–at least for the time being.

At my own school, each teacher’s role became to support teenagers in carrying on with their day until we could get them home safely.  I reminded my students that people often make insensitive remarks and jokes when they are uncomfortable with what is happening, but that I expected them to remember that when (s)he left home that morning EVERY innocent passenger on those airliners had expected to come home to his or her family.  To their credit, every one of those teens handled what was happening that day with exceptional maturity and respect.

Once the high school closed early, I was able to go home to my family.  My wife and I tried to watch TV coverage as we could while shielding the girls from the surreal reports and images.  We decided 3 was too young to face what had happened, but that–unfortunately–5 had no choice.  So after dinner that night, my wife kept our younger daughter inside while I took our 5 year old outside to talk about the terror attacks. We were worried that she would hear other kids talking on the bus or at school the next day and that she would get scared, and we wanted to prepare her so she would feel safe.

Our home is a 45 minute drive from a major international airport, so from early morning through late at night there are always planes in the sky.  As we sat on the front porch, I explained that some bad people who do not like America and the way we live had crashed planes into buildings and hurt a lot of people.  But I asked her to look up, and pointed out that there were not any planes in the sky.  I told her the president had ordered all of the planes to land, but that when she did see a plane in the sky over the next few days it would be one of the president’s planes and that it would be up there making sure we were all safe.  She asked a few questions, accepted my answers, and we went back inside.

Schools were closed the next day.  The kids and I went back to school on Thursday, and our family met with relatives on Saturday night for a candlelight vigil to honor those who had been lost on the 11th.  Eleven years later that week may be a fuzzy memory for our now high school junior; but it is one of my clearest memories out of 16+ years as a dad.



1 Comment

Filed under Safety, Tragedy

One Response to September 11, 2001–Explaining Terrorism To A 5 Year Old

  1. I had a similar moment when trying to explain the 10/04/2010 plane crash in Smoleńsk with our President aboard to my nephew. I didn’t understand it at that time either but just tried to make him feel safe. That’s the best way to do it…

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