Home > Current Events, Family, Parenting > How I Told My 6-Year Old About 9/11

How I Told My 6-Year Old About 9/11

September 11, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

My son and I have a bedtime ritual where we play with his “question cards.” They’re flashcards, really, questions on one side and answers on the other — math, science, social studies, vocabulary — designed for first and second graders. We were at it last night.

He’s tucked into the old blue glider (the same one I nursed him in, tatty and faded but I can’t bear to give it away), I’m on the floor quizzing him.

How many quarters in a dollar?

Is a continent land or water?

What four things does a plant need to grow?

And then this:

What U.S. city did terrorists attack on September 11, 2001?


It stops me cold. My eyes fill, my stomach turns. In the flash of a card, I am hurled back in time. 

There it is. A social studies question on a first grader’s flash card.

My son pokes me with his foot, wanting me to continue. 

I look up. Carefully: “I need to tell you something important.”

He’s listening. He knows when I’m serious.

I breathe. “Tomorrow is a special day. I’m not sure they’ll tell you about it in school, so I want to tell you myself.”

Still listening.

“There used to be two amazing buildings in New York City – huge skyscrapers, we called them the Twin Towers. You would’ve loved them, they were really cool and you could see them from all over the city.  I used to look for them when I was lost because they’d help me figure out where I was supposed to be going.”

He’s liking this. He’s into big, cool buildings. He wants to know if I was ever inside them. I said no, but Daddy was once, in a beautiful restaurant at the top of one of the towers where you could practically see the clouds.

Hard part. “One day eight years ago, some bad men got on airplanes and flew right into those towers. The airplanes exploded like bombs, and that made the towers catch fire and fall down.”

My son takes this in. I’m not even going to mention the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. This is enough. He frowns.  “But…were there people in the towers?”

My heart hurts. His first concern is the people inside. I get it out: “Yes, there were people in the towers. A lot of people of died that day.”

His eyes widen. He clenches two small fists, angry. “THOSE JERKS.”

Oh, my baby. Jerks. A playground word. A playground world. That’s what life should be for a six-year old. “Jerk” is just about as bad as it gets in his reality. Am I right to invade it with the ugliness of this story?

Too late now. He wants to know why the terrorists chose the World Trade Center. I’m startled by the thoughtfulness of the question. I tell him the towers were symbols of New York City, of America, of a way of life the bad men hated.

I can tell we’re moving into deep waters and frankly, am not equipped to explain why radical Muslims hate the West. I don’t understand it myself. Besides, my son has friends named Mohammed and Abbas whose moms come to the playground in long skirts and head coverings. All I want my son to know is Muslim is something some of his friends just happen to be — the same way Daddy is Russian Orthodox and his best friend Sebi is half-Jewish. I don’t want him to care or even notice the difference.

I can see I’ve got a few seconds left of his patience before he’s ready to go back to easier questions. “So tomorrow, sweetheart — you’ll think a special thought for those people who died. Yes?”


  1. September 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Great job, Mom– on the post and the conversation.

  2. September 11, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. Brought tears to my eyes. Strange to think there are people who have no memory of that day. And how beautiful, the innocence of a child.

    • ssmirnov
      September 11, 2009 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You’re so right. Kids shouldn’t have to know about this stuff.

  3. Christielea
    September 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Wow. You handled a very difficult, but very important subject with kid-friendly grace. Congrats to you for holding nothing back about it…and “bad men who don’t like the West” is probably the best way to describe the planners behind 9/11 in general!

    • ssmirnov
      September 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

      I wavered for a second over “bad men” but what the hell. They WERE bad men. But I didn’t want my son to hear “bad” and “Muslim” in the same sentence, that’s not fair.

  4. September 11, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Good job. I haven’t had to talk to my kids about it yet, which has kind of surprised me.

    My oldest is in 3rd grade. He knows about Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a grandfather who was in Vietnam so we have talked a bit about war.

    But they haven’t discussed 9-11 in school yet, although today might be the day that changes.

    I have been thinking long and hard about how to explain it to him.

    • ssmirnov
      September 11, 2009 at 4:37 pm

      My father died in Vietnam when I was only 18 months old and my son is named for him — so he’s heard about Grandpa and also two Great-Grandpas who fought in World War II. He can get his head around that stuff, for better or worse — war, soldiers, GI Joe — it’s abstract and game-like. But people flying planes into buildings to hurt innocent people? Am still not sure he really got the full impact of that.

  5. September 11, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    This is really touching, and it made me start to cry. Parents, aunts and uncles, teachers etc… all over are going to have to try to explain that day to children at some point. You did a really nice job.

  6. Max The Russian Daddy
    September 11, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Amazing! I red this and I couldn’t hold my tears! My baby Boy had to know that terrible things took a place 8 years ago just about 5-7 miles away from our quiet beautiful town and almost 5000 people died. Why? Why? Why?
    He will get it much later in full picture. But it is our time reality – we must explain now what happened that day…
    We’ll keep that day in our memories until last days and we’ll pray it wouldn’t never ever happen again…
    God bless America!

  7. Geri
    September 11, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Am in tears, Stephanie. You did a nice job explaining this day. My 6-year-old son and I are having a very different conversation. He wants numbers — how many people drove the plane, how many were in each building, did the firemen get hurt? If so, how many? Are they all in graves? Oh, and then this comment – If they only did it once then it’s an accident. If they did it MORE than once, then it’s on purpose. Ugh.

    • ssmirnov
      September 11, 2009 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks, Geri. It’s so interesting how kids process stuff. And heart wrenching.

  8. Carl H.
    September 11, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Those jerks!

  9. September 11, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I watched the second plane hit, from 7 or so blocks north. I watched the towers fall. One, and then the other.

    And I have such a hard time getting to the WHAT about how I feel about it, the what about what I saw. I have a difficult time talking about it, and I write and hash and re-hash.

    Little makes me cry, which I miss. I should cry. Easily about this, when confronted with it – tears should come.

    And with this post? They did.

    Wow. Thank you.

    • ssmirnov
      September 12, 2009 at 8:06 am

      Catrinka, thanks so much for your comment. I saw it all unfold from about 40 blocks north, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see it from your vantage point. Every year I think, this is the year I won’t cry about it. And every year, I’m wrong.

  10. LisaP
    September 11, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    What a beautiful and important post about an ugly but so important topic. Thank you for taking the time to share it.

  11. Amy Kramer
    September 11, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I’m all choked up, thank you for this post. What a wonderful, thoughtful way to explain something so henious to a 6 year old. My kids are still young (1 and 3) but I wondered if my 3 year old might hear something and ask. I’m wildly grateful he didn’t. Not sure I could have handled it today.

    • ssmirnov
      September 12, 2009 at 8:10 am

      Amy, I’m sure you’ll find a way to tell your kids in exactly the right way. Just follow your gut. I sort of blundered my way into it thanks to the flash cards (which I’m still reeling over, by the way), but I’m really glad I did. Thanks so much for commenting.

  12. September 12, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    That gives me chills. I’ve not had that conversation with my 5yo first grader…

  13. September 13, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    This is not a post to read in the library. As I am now sitting here all teared up. Beautiful post stephanie.

  14. September 14, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Wow, girl. You really can bring it.

  15. Karen
    September 14, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    You handled this beautifully.

  16. September 14, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    My two youngest are 12 and 11. I have answered many questions about this and the wars in the 8 intervening years. I was shocked this year when my 12-year-old said: “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this. It was so long ago.”

    Honestly, that statement brought me back to that day more viscerally than any news coverage or media tributes. I remember every aching, shocking moment. I realized again how little my boys were that day, how much time has gone by, and how, for their entire lives, 9/11 will be part of their reality — whether they want it to be or not.

  17. sashahalima
    September 29, 2009 at 1:39 am

    Wow — that was a good way of dealing with that.

    Good job mummy!

    I don’t know what I would have said — the great thing about kids is that they are so simple. As adults I find we complicate EVERYTHING.

    Sometimes, things are just better then they are simple.

  1. January 19, 2010 at 5:23 pm

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