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Explaining Difficult Events to Young Children on The Anniversary of 9/11

There are many difficult things in life and we can't always shield our children from those things. I think it's important to help children to ask questions about things that are difficult to understand, we may not always have the answers, but maybe that in itself helps children see that some things in life are hard to explain, even for grown ups.

When 9/11 occurred I was a teacher, the children I taught were aged between 2 and 5 years. We were told as teachers to be careful about how we approached the subject of death. Our children's picture books about death were on a special shelf out of the children's reach and we were only allowed to read them to individual children if they were experiencing loss of some kind. Personally I found this a little ludicrous. In my experience children naturally become curious about death at around the age of 3 and would often ask questions relating to the topic of death. In their play they were working out whether they could die and come back to life, they were fascinated by creatures that had died (a regular occurrence with our pet fish) and would talk very matter of factly about the concept of death.

At times parents would get angry that their children were talking about death, believing that children have plenty of time to come to terms with such issues and should not be exposed to them at pre-school. My reply was always that it was a natural part of their development and curiosity, that we did not teach about death but if children asked questions then we would discuss it sensitively with them. I have always believed that if children are old enough to ask questions, then they are old enough to be given age appropriate answers. I believe that if topics are on children's minds then they should be discussed rather than brushed under the carpet.

Then came 9/11. The horror of those images had a lasting effect on many adults so how would you explain it to young children? It must have been difficult to shield young children from those images as most households had the news on 24 hours a day. Most of the children in my care were certainly aware that the big buildings had fallen down if nothing else.

The day of the 3 minutes silence fell within nursery hours and we needed to decide whether to involve the children and if so how to explain it to them. It was decided that the 2 year olds were too young but the children from 3 years and upwards would honour a 1 minutes silence. We each had a group of children split into age groups and were given the task of explaining to them what was happening. I had the youngest group. I asked the children about their thoughts regarding what they had been seeing on the news, they talked about seeing the buildings fall down. We talked about how lots of people had been hurt when the buildings fell down and that we were going to spend a little bit of time without making a sound to think about the people who were sad or hurt. I explained that it would be a bit like giving the sad people a big hug to make them feel better . We talked about how their parents would be doing it too at the same time and that all over the country people would be quietly thinking about the people who were hurt.

I don't think I really expected the 3 year olds to be able to sit still in silence for 1 minute - but I was amazed when every one of them did. When the minute was up I told them how proud of them I was and we talked for a while about what they had thought about when they were quiet. I don't remember getting any profound responses, but I think with hindsight it might have been nice to have recorded their thoughts in a book for their parents and future generations to share what the children thought of such a tragic event.

Ten years on and I have 3 children of my own, I won't go out of my way to talk about the anniversary but I will certainly talk about it if they ask questions. I don't protect my own children from the subject of death. Having lost my mother before they were born we have had to address the fact that my mum is no longer here. I have told them that she was very poorly and the doctors couldn't make her better. They accept it in a very matter of fact way. I didn't shield my children when we found a dead deer in the garden. My 2 year old didn't really understand what the word dead meant but she understands that it was hurt and the men needed to take it away to be with the other dead animals.

There are many difficult things in life and we can't always shield our children from those things. I think it's important to help children to ask questions about things that are difficult to understand, we may not always have the answers, but maybe that in itself helps children see that some things in life are hard to explain, even for grown ups.