Teaching Kids About 9/11 Attacks

It’s hard to believe that 13 years has passed since that fateful morning when 2,996 people lost their lives. Knowing that both my kids were not alive to witness the moment, I make sure I am teaching my kids about the 9/11 attacks. The reality is that like many other events in history, the reality of 9/11 is not something you want to share with a child. Still, its a part of American history that they need to understand. Here is my guide to teaching kids about 9/11 attacks.

Explaining Bad People

The 9/11 attacks were the work of some very bad people. In my kids’ minds, that is easier rationalized than it should be. Perhaps its the cartoons, video games or fairy tales that fill their days but my kids understand that there are bad people out there. I find that at 4 and 6, I don’t need to go much further than that in details of the who and why just yet.

Focusing on the Good

A reality of 9/11 is that people truly helped each other out that day. New Yorkers ran to each other’s aid and many first responders went into the towers aware they may not come out. Countries around the world rallied around the United States and held New Yorkers in their hearts. I especially like to tell my kids about how Canadians in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, opened their homes to strangers. The town of almost 10,000 has been honoured for taking in over 6500 stranded airline passengers. By focusing on these stories, my kids are able to learn about the human good displayed on 9/11.


Facing Reality

9/11I took Will to New York City when he was 4 years old. Truth be told, I had a very hard time deciding whether or not to tell him about the attacks before heading to the city. I particularly did not want him to be afraid to fly into the city or worried while we were visiting. Still, the reality of the towers being gone was something I couldn’t ignore. I took Will down to the site and Battery Park and we looked at the new construction near the site. I explained to him why the building was being built and the importance of the design. At 4, he didn’t understand much but liked to see the construction and seemed to understand that bad guys had knocked the buildings down. It opened the door to further discussions and now that he is older, we discuss the World Trade Center in more detail. Many of Will’s New York city books and his snow globe still contain the original World Trade Center towers and so it is easier to explain and less of just a concept for him. Recently, he was gifted a new snow globe where One World Trade Center is standing tall. Thus, the lesson has come full circle.

Discussing the Heroes

Recently, we visited the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan which had on display a 9/11 memorial firefighters Harley Davidson. It took me a few minutes to realize what it was but once I did, I brought my children as close to the bike as possible and showed them the names of the firefighters who lost their lives on that fateful day. I explained that they were mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and even grandparents. We didn’t focus on the bad guys or the attacks but talked about how firefighters are constantly risking their lives to save people. The kids reactions were that of sadness and confusion which 13 years later is still how I feel.



Realizing its Okay if They Don’t Understand


Photo Credit: Joe Woolhead

Charlie is 4. She clearly understands this day less than Will. I don’t feel at this point, its necessary to show either of them footage of that day. In fact, I hope it is a long time before they are exposed to it. The time will come where they will see the paper flying, the people jumping and the buildings collapsing. That time is not now. It is hard to teach kids the realities of the world especially when it is unstable and relationships between countries are constantly changing. There will be a time we will visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum but I do not assume it will be before they are 10 and 8. This summer, we spent a few days in Washington, D.C.  and I made the same decision about the Holocaust Memorial and Museum.

Providing Comfort and Reassurance in the Face of Fear

I am a travel blogger. My kids fly all the time. They understand that the bad people crashed planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They do not know at this point that they were hijacked civilian planes. I believe its still okay that their biggest fears are that mom and dad might die or that monsters live in the closet. As someone who can barely comprehend what the people on those flights went through, I see this detail as one more thing they will learn in time.

Turning off the Television and Internet

The reality of 9/11 is that each year the footage of the attacks is replayed on major cable networks. This is to remember. For children, especially those home from school, chances are this will be the first time seeing the footage. After 13 years, I still am in complete disbelief every time I watch the footage. Explaining to a 4 or even 6 year old that this is past footage will not make it any easier. Be cautious of what you are watching and the background noise in the house. Make your first priority teaching your kids about 9/11 the way that you believe will be the easiest for them to comprehend and process.

Playing Outside

park playI find the easiest place to talk about hard things is in a park. Once the conversation is over make time for family play time. Reassure your children that the world is still the happy place they know but that these events are important to learn about and remember. Take a little time to hug them tighter in honor of all those who lost their family members that day.

For more tips on teaching kids about 9/11 see these tips provided by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

2 Comments on this post

  1. Thanks so much for writing this, Sarah. Just yesterday my oldest daughter came home very upset that “something bad might happen” today. We’re in the process of planning a family trip to Washington, DC and she said last night that she didn’t want to go for fear that something could happen in the city while we were there. She’s 12, older than your kids, and is (to my chagrin) exposed to more media than I’d like. I told her that this is a huge part of terrorism–that we are held prisoners–afraid to live our lives for fear of “something bad” happening. Your post is very timely and I’ll definitely keep it in mind when talking to my girls.

    Gina Vercesi / Reply

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