Teaching Young Children about September 11

It is an unfortunate truth that we have to teach our kids about the horrors of the world, such as what happened in New York City on September 11, 2001. Doing so, however, should be a concept learned little by little, line upon line, as they grow. Here are some sensible ways to teach about 9-11 and Patriot Day to children of a variety of ages.

September 11 Lesson Ideas for Young Children

A few years ago, when my son (my oldest) was three years old, we were driving to church on September 11 when my son noticed the flag at half-mast. He asked me the question that haunted me at the time: “Why is the flag coming down?”

I told him that many years ago on that day some bad men stole an airplane and killed a lot of people. We fly the flag halfway up to remember that lots of people died.

“Who were the people that died?” he responded. “Tell me their names.”

I didn’t have any names for him. I didn’t, in fact, know any of the 3,000 people who died that day. I didn’t even see the television coverage until after I returned home from campus a few hours after the fact. I found out about the towers as I walked into my economics class at 9 a.m. Mountain Time, just 20 minutes after I’d finished reading the New York Times and heading out for class.

It struck me, though, that his first reaction was to connect with the people who died. He could have said, “Why would bad men do that?” but no, he knows that some people are bad in the world. He just wanted to remember along with me and all the others that put our flag at half-mast. I had just told him that we lower the flag to remember. He was remembering through me. In some respects, that is enough of history to comprehend for preschoolers!

Remembering the Helpers in September 11 Lessons

As children get older, it may be helpful to understand the positive amidst the tragedy.

I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

The quote from Fred Rogers above is never more important than when we are teaching our kids about sad events that happened. September 11, 2001, is such an event that can be remembered through the helpers. It’s also helpful to remember that September 11 is now remembered as Patriot Day, so it is a good time to study the Pledge of Allegiance or national leaders.

September 11 Lessons with Kids Books for Younger Children

The following books are good “helper” books related to September 11 for younger readers. Of course, parents need to take into consideration their own children’s sensitivity. Already reread a book first to determine if it is appropriate for your child.

  • Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman. In this book, a retired old fireboat becomes a hero as he fights to put out the fires on September 11.
  • Saved by the Boats: The Heroic Sea Evacuation of September 11 by Julie Gassman. Downtown Manhattan was quite crowed by 10 a.m. on September 11. This tells how nearly half a million people were rescued by boat and taken to surrounding boroughs.
  • 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. In a small village in Kenya, local villagers give America a gift of a 14 cows, an extraordinary gift for their rural community to give, given as a symbol of hope to help ease the pains of American’s grieving hearts.
  • The Survivor Tree: Inspired by a True Story by Cheryl Somers Aubin. A month after the collapse of the Twin Towers, green leaves of a pear tree appear under the debris and ash. The tree became a symbol of hope and survival in the midst of hardship.
  • The Man in the Red Bandanna by Honor Crowther Fagan. A man who always carried his father’s red bandanna used it to save the lives of many people from the upper flowers of the South Tower.
  • September Roses by Jeanette Winter. Two sisters from South Africa, travelling to a flower show, end up stranded in New York City on September 11, 2001 with boxes of roses. Their floral tributes to the those who died comforted those assisting in the rescues.
  • The Little Chapel that Stood by A.B. Curtiss. This poem gives tribute to a small chapel that stood in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Remarkably, no damage was done to the chapel as first responders dropped their boots and heavy equipment at the gates of the church.
  • Seven and a Half Tons of Steel by Janet Nolan. New York State gave the U.S. Navy seven and a half tons of steel that were in World Trade Center. As the Navy worked with the steel, it became the bow of a powerful Navy ship.
  • America is Under Attack by Don Brown. A straight forward historical picture book about the events of September 11.

Easing In to More Detailed September 11 Lessons

Now that some of my kids are older, I feel we can have a little bit more discussion about history. For example, when my early elementary child was asking more questions, I decided we’d watch the BrainPop featured movie together (subscription required, but it usually is free to watch on September 11 each year). The movie raised even more questions. He could not comprehend what a terrorist is, and why or how someone would do what they did.

Now my youngest child will be entering this stage, and my older children are the ones who want to explain it to her. Yikes!

I’m okay with building little by little each year. It is a tragedy that I’d rather not have to try to explain. But as he grows in understanding of the good that happened that day too, I feel he is reassured in our safety in the world.

September 11 Lessons Using Books for Older Children

Fictionalized stories, as well as more detailed nonfiction, are more appropriate for older children who can understand bad and good in the world without becoming traumatized. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed. I am excited to introduce some of these to my fifth grader this year.

  • I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis. A child takes a bus downtown to visit his uncle’s firehouse, only to find himself in the midst of the chaos.
  • What Were the Twin Towers? by Jim O’Conner. From the What Was? series, this book provides a factual look at history.
  • Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Fifteen years after September 11, Deja and her friends learn about the history of the Twin Towers and the 9-11 attack, an event that happened before she was born but that directly impacts her life on a daily basis, showing how history impacts the present.
  • Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Four different children tell their stories in the early days of September 2001. It’s only a year later that we see how they are all connected. Although this book does not take place on September, it gives an amazing glimpse into how events in one part of the world influence us all.
  • Eleven by Tom Rogers. Alex Douglas turns 11 on 9/11/2001 and his day turns out a bit more different than he imagined!
  • 10 True Tales: Heroes of 9/11 by Allan Zullo. Learn about the first responders and other every-day heroes that came at the call on September 11.

September 11 As Patriot Day

My goal in teaching my children is to help them understand the events of September 11 from a historical perspective, but also to avoid unnecessary trauma. While I did not know anyone who perished on September 11, the impact of that time did influence my life, my country, and the history of our nation. 

As such, I much prefer to focus on the positives of the day, especially that the day has been designated as Patriot Day. It leads to a great discussion on what it means to be a patriot. What does that truly mean? I've created a differentiated reading comprehension worksheet set, as well as writing prompts and September 11 memorial information, in a special Patriot Day packet. I hope it helps young children better grasp the significance of the day rather than the fear.

Each child approaches tragedy in a different way. How will you approach the subject with your children this year?

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  • My daughter was a year old when 9/11 occurred. My husband was flying to a business meeting, I had friends living in New York and they had family living in New York. I had a friend that was going to a job interview that day at the Twin Towers. A friend’s sister and her husband worked in the Twin Towers. For many hours, and in some cases, days, I did not know what had happened to any of them. I had my daughter playing behind the couch so she couldn’t see the images, but while I played with her, I watched the news reports continually for hours with the volume low. I was horrified, sickened, deeply saddened and fearful for not just those I knew but for all the other countless people I would never know. It was so unhealthy to watch those images over and over and over but I could not turn myself away, even though I knew I should.

    When my kids were really small, I would just have them say a prayer and have a moment of silence for “some people that were injured or killed during a bad moment on 9/11/00). However, as they got older I knew they needed more explanation, especially since I would sometimes break down and cry when the subject came up.

    I found with my own kids that I have to present things differently with each of them. I also have to be prepared mentally or all those old emotions threaten to overwhelm me. The reaction is at such a base level, it is unconscious and my rational mind has trouble controlling my emotional reaction. I know that seeing me sobbing over an event that to them seems far in the past can be confusing and frightening.

    My daughter tends to be a glass half empty person and can easily drop into a depressive state if she perceives the world as too negative. Although she is the older by several years, she is the more fragile. She is the one that will say things like “If we are so awful to each other, we don’t deserve this earth. The world would be better off without us.” For her, to keep her seeing the good in life while she is still forming her views is more important than “preparing her for reality” as some have told me to do. I fear “preparing her for reality” will put her in a position where she really does not see the point in life.

    With my son, even though he is more sensitive to peoples feelings, is much quicker to sympathize with others and cries when others suffer, he is also the more positive of the two. He WANTS to understand economic, political and social systems and WANTS to know more about history and current events so that he can actively take part and help. He is definitely the more glass nearly full no matter what type of personality.

    Although 9/11 is upsetting to him, he asks lots of questions and wants to grasp the complexities of what caused 9/11 to occur and what happened to the survivors after the event. With him, I am more detailed and have deeper discussion. He may get upset, but he sees things very proactively and moves through his emotions in a very healthy way.

    For instance, when he was younger and heard about the Tsunami that devastated so many people and homes in the East, he cried, but then immediately began planning his future with that event in mind. He decided that the best way for him to be of help if something like that happened again was to gain life skills that he could then volunteer to use, such as carpentry, medical knowledge, understanding local languages and customs, etc. In fact, his list is quite long of skills he hopes to acquire to be of more use in disaster situations, as well as everyday needs of the people in his community.

    With my daughter, we give thanks that many survived and the tragedy wasn’t worse. We have a moment of silence and a prayer and we end the conversation. That is all she wishes to participate in and that is all I think she needs at this point.

    With my son, we spend as much time as he wants discussing, doing research, studying those who lost their lives and those that made it, what rescue systems worked and what didn’t, etc.

    At least that’s what has worked so far…as with politics, kids are fluid. Who knows what their needs will be next year? 🙂

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