Answering Difficult Questions from Our Child

For several years now, part of my 7-year-old son’s bedtime ritual has been to mark off the day on a calendar that he keeps in the room.  The calendar lists many holidays and he often will ask my wife and me to explain what they are.  I am writing this post on September 12, 2011 and last night he asked us to explain what "Patriot Day" was.

My wife and I had both paid attention to our share of remembrances, but we hadn’t openly discussed the anniversary around our son.  We also hadn’t had the TV or commercial radio on all day (which is actually pretty normal for a weekend day), so he hadn’t heard or seen any of the coverage either.  The events of September 11, 2001 aren’t currently covered in school for his age group and we hadn’t had previous occasion to discuss them with him, so this was the first time we needed to address the issue. 

I know that we probably could have largely avoided the issue by giving a simplistic answer, such as "It is a day where we recognize American heroes" or something similar to that.  That type of evasive answer somehow felt dishonest, though, so we instead did our best to provide a child-friendly explanation of events that still feel almost entirely inexplicable even to my grown-up mind.  During the conversation, he frequently asked us variations on the question "why?"  We did our best to explain that there really isn’t a good answer to that question.

We weren’t blindsided by the need to address the issue.  It was obviously a possibility that he would see or here some reference to 9/11 around the 10th anniversary and ask us about it.  In fact, it wasn’t really a surprise that his calendar commemorated the day and that was what triggered the question.  For that reason, my wife and I did already have ideas in mind for how to address the subject, although it wasn’t easy to actually express the right words when the time actually came.

We started off by first asking him if he had heard anything about the events, either at school, from friends, or from some other source.  When he said he hadn’t, we then explained that some very bad people had attacked buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., causing many people to get killed.  One thing we avoided was telling him the specifics of how the attacks were carried out, mainly because we do fly somewhat frequently and we feared that part of it would be too much for him to handle.  I’m sure we would have answered direct questions, but he didn’t ask for more details of that type.

We tried to focus on the heroism of the firefighters, police officers, and even civilian bystanders that risked and, in too many cases, lost their lives trying to help get people to safety.  He specifically asked us where they took the people that they rescued and we told him that those who were injured were taken to hospitals, some were simply moved out of harm’s way, and that some of those rescued joined the effort to rescue others.  We tried really hard to convey that the attacks themselves represented the worst of what people can do, but that much of the immediate response brought out some of the very best of humanity and that those heroes are the focus of the recognition of the anniversary.

Perhaps the hardest part of this conversation was the need to address events that conflicted with his youthfully-innocent world view.  Just one day earlier, he had seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, for the first time. As soon as the credits started to roll, he turned to me and asked in a puzzled voice "Were the people that were trying to kill the Beast bad people?"  He had struggled to reconcile that the enemies in the climactic battle scene were ordinary villagers and not monsters or some other typical cartoon villains.  I did my best to convey that they were confused and scared by something the didn’t understand, but it was a tough concept for him to grasp, although I was impressed that he had even honed in on the real complexities of the story.

In light of that conversation from the day before, I wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t easily grasp the concept that people had intentionally done something as awful as the 9/11 attacks.  Honestly, my wife and I were best able to respond to this by essentially agreeing with him.  The truth is that neither of us really are able to understand.  Outside of the co-conspirators themselves, I really doubt that anyone can truly understand it.

I somewhat regret my first attempt to answer when he asked why they did it.  In retrospect, we probably should have stuck with simply emphasizing how inexplicable it really was, but instead I initially tried to explain that they had warped religious views that led them to believe they were doing what God wanted. 

We aren’t a particularly religious family, but we have always tried to at least portray religious faith as a positive trait.  We tried to explain that the terrorists had very wrong views of who God is and what he wants people to do, but it is not easy to explain to a 7-year-old why one view of the unknowable is objectively wrong, even when that view did lead to clearly evil acts.

This part of the discussion led to questions about who God is, where he lives, and where people go when they die.  Some of these questions are ones that have come up in some past discussions, but they weren’t ones that were easy to answer in this specific context.  Our responses all largely centered on the concept that nobody really knows the answers for sure, but I really don’t know if those responses were really that satisfactory.

One of our biggest concerns was that we convey the gravity of the topic without leaving him excessively frightened or stressed.  Besides focusing on the heroism of the day, we also spent some time talking about safety precautions that he would find familiar and which were tightened since 9/11.  We talked a bit about the bag checks at places like Disneyland and The Hollywood Bowl as well as about the tightened airport security.  While there is plenty of room for adult debate over the effectiveness of these things, they do serve as fairly easily understood examples of how authority figures are trying to make us safer.

We also talked quite a bit about the security measures that are in place at our son’s school and we also used this as an opportunity to once again reiterate with him that he should be wary of strangers and that he should always go to an adult he trusts (us, his teacher or principal, our adult friends and family, etc.) if he sees someone or something that seems wrong or makes him uncomfortable.

Finally, we talked about the rarity of the event and how that is part of what made it so horrifying.  One of his questions was whether or not we had known anyone that died in the attacks.  When we answered no, his follow up was to ask us how we found out about it.  We explained that it was reported by every TV and radio station, newspaper, and online and that, in fact, it was pretty much the main topic of conversation for just about everyone for a while.  We made it clear that this was because nothing just like this had ever happened before or sense and that horrible events of this scale are extremely unusual.

While he had a lot of questions and was certainly somewhat troubled by what we said, the impact didn’t seem to be overwhelming.  In fact, he really hasn’t brought it up again today, at least that I’ve heard.  I believe that 9/11 is an event that is never going to have the kind of impact on him that it had on those of us that watched it unfold in real time. 

Much like the way that my generation looks at events like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination, I expect it will be for him a sad and disturbing historical event instead of the vivid life experience it is for today’s adults.  If this turns out to be the case, I’m grateful.  Back in 2001, I was afraid that 9/11 was just the beginning of what might become a horrible new normal.  I don’t pretend that isn’t still a possibility, but I have hope that day will continue to be viewed as a horrifying aberration.

One Response to “Answering Difficult Questions from Our Child”

  1. Sherry says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Jeff. I think you guys handled his questions very well, and I’m impressed that your son could ask all of those questions in the first place. You’re well on your way to answering those other difficult questions that are yet to come! :)

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