How I Told My 6-Year Old About 9/11
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.”
“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?”