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.