Teachable Moments for Children About the Trade Center Attacks

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson.

The dust has begun to settle from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and we're left with a deep sadness for the loss of life and security, a roiling anger toward the perpetrators and those who support them, and a simmering fear of what lies ahead. The complexities of this tragedy are impossible for adults to grasp, let alone children. But as we struggle to sort out our own thoughts and feelings, we need to engage our children in that process. Moving beyond the shock and horror that overwhelmed us early on, we need to go deeper now, recognizing the teachable moments that such events present for children of all ages.

Tailoring your words and actions to your child's age, needs and abilities, consider these steps:
Find out what your child knows, thinks and feels about what has happened. Ask open-ended questions, such as, "What do you think this is all about? What do you know about where this happened or who was involved? What do you think might happen next? How do you feel about this?" Media images of moms and dads who died can evoke a child's primal fears that the same could happen to you, perhaps especially if you travel in your job or work in a high-rise building. Talk of war conjures up fearful images from movies, TV shows and video games. Young children do not distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality, and they lack a clear sense of geography and distance. So listen carefully for your child's sense of connection to the events, worries about personal safety, or fears that you or other family members could die or be hurt. Listen also for misconceptions and be prepared to clarify your child's understanding as necessary.

Continue to reassure your child about steps being taken to keep us safe. If your child does not seem frightened, don't dwell on this. But if your child is fearful, acknowledge that this is a very frightening time, then assure your child about added safety measures at airports, the efforts of our public officials to prevent further violence, and of course your own commitment to being there to love, comfort and protect your child.

It is most helpful to explain death to young children in very clear and direct language. For example, you might say, "Grandpa was very sick, and finally his body quit working." Beyond the simple explanation, it is important to express--and allow children to express--sadness and even anger about the loss. This also is a time to teach children your own family's religious beliefs about death and to encourage them to find comfort in those beliefs. For example, within the framework of my own beliefs, I might say, "We are going to miss Grandpa a lot, and we feel very sad right now. But in our family we believe that Grandpa's spirit is with God."

Seize the teachable moment. Especially for older children and teens, use this opportunity to teach the larger lessons that often get lost in our hurried, materialistic lives. Talk with them about the values on which our country was founded, the symbolism of our flag, and the fine line our leaders need to walk now as we try to make our country safer while preserving the individual freedom that has defined us. For young people who have observed the rancor among politicians, help them see that partisan differences are much smaller than the common values that unite us--and that the freedom to disagree openly, even now, is at the core of our democracy. Open their eyes also to the perspectives of people in other parts of the world. Get out maps and books and learn together about the history of the Arab world, the lives of the citizens of Afghanistan and neighboring countries, and the different ways, positive and negative, that our government's actions (and our own way of life) are interpreted in the Middle East.

Head off misconceptions. Sadly, some people are using the occasion of this tragedy to lash out at all Muslims, all people of Arab descent, or even all immigrants. Young children may be frightened by the sight of a man in a turban or a girl or woman in traditional Muslim dress. This is a time to explain carefully to children the difference between peaceful followers of Islam and the radical few who committed these atrocious crimes.

Read together about the teachings of Islam and the common values shared among Christians, Jews and Muslims. (The multifaith prayer services following the assault afforded a beautiful opportunity to find common ground.) Rather than yielding to a "close the border" mentality, teach children about how our diverse population came to be. Beyond the Native Americans who preceded us all, and African Americans who tragically were brought here as slaves, waves of immigrants from all corners of the world have come to America seeking freedom to worship, to speak their mind, and to build a life for themselves and their families.

Engage your child in positive action. There are countless ways for families to reach out to others during this time of recovery and healing. Newspapers and television can point you to charitable organizations seeking money, clothing, teddy bears or time. If you have children who are 17 or older, they can join you in giving blood through your local American Red Cross. And, in the long run, parents and children can unite with others in their neighborhood, school, or place of worship to work toward peace and understanding.

Children benefit enormously from being engaged in real, positive work in their community. And our communities, in turn, become stronger from the inside out. We have a long, hard road ahead of us. Connection to family and community is the bedrock that will sustain our children and us, as it has through challenging times before.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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