A chance to rebuild
With all of the violence and fear wrapped up in 9/11 and the events and threats it has spawned, it is a particular subject to frame for kids. "I think you need to be careful with young children," Brodsky Schur says, highlighting ages five to eight as particularly delicate years—when children register just enough information to be afraid but often lack the deeper knowledge and coping skills to put their reactions into context. She notes it is okay to acknowledge that a horrible event occurred, but "there's a lot about resiliency" to be highlighted, about "people helping one another and rescue efforts" that highlight the positive things that happened in the wake of the attacks, she says.
Age-appropriate play can be particularly useful for putting this message into action, Myers-Walls explains. "If they're concerned about things, what play allows you to do is redo things," she says. If a child is building towers of blocks and knocking them down with planes, it gives adults a chance to refocus energy on the act of rebuilding the towers—and how cooperation can facilitate the process. Stuffed animals, dolls and other toys, likewise, are often how preschool- and elementary-age kids relate stories they have heard. "That is a way children learn to understand things and process them," Myers-Walls says. And as with the blocks, these times of play can be opportunities for adults to join in, highlighting positive alternatives and gently revising misapprehensions of events or concepts. Like much of learning, research has shown that this sort of play is part of "a gradual building of their attitudes and their impressions that will come from multiple interactions," Myers-Walls says.
Recent curriculum work has shown that for older children, the events of and following September 11th can be productively put into historical contexts that highlight examples of resiliency and cooperation, such as the American Revolution or the Great Depression. The complex event and its aftermath can also be further illuminated via discussions of larger themes in social and political history, such as balancing national safety and civil rights—comparing reactions to 9/11 with those following the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example—or the grounds for overseas military interventions—such as the recent U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan as compared with the U.S.'s position on the League of Nations after World War I. "These themes put a light on it," Brodsky Schur says, giving teachers and even parents a way to integrate such a seemingly unteachable event.
But before adults attempt to teach children about 9/11, it is crucial for them to examine how they themselves feel about it, Myers-Walls notes. Especially if the anniversary is going to be a tough time emotionally for adults, she says, "they need to get themselves together before they deal with the kids. I think it's okay to show emotions," she notes. "But you don't want them to feel like you're out of control—you're the emotional base for your kids."
And although the September 11th attacks—and the events they precipitated—might have been life-altering in many ways for adults, for many kids, they simply might not be worth dwelling on, anniversary or not. For children of military families or those who lost relatives in the attacks, the event is naturally going to have much more of a personal impact and might require closer emotional monitoring. As Myers-Walls notes, however, "most kids, I think, are going to say, 'That's interesting, but I'm going to go play.'"