Teaching The Ugly Realities:  9/11

Parents want to protect their kids, not only from harm, but also from the knowledge of some of the terrible things that occur in contemporary society.  We might discuss such things when they age, but a picture is worth a thousand words and no amount of classroom or dinner-table discussion can bring home the impact of what occurred and it’s unclear when the kids might be ready for a more visceral examination of an event.  Such was the question in this household as I pondered whether Youngest was now old enough to view a CBS news documentary – What We Saw – issued about a year after the attacks.

The documentary is a 2002 hardcover book with accompanying DVD that relates the events of 9/11, commencing with Bryant Gumbel’s morning interview with a witness to a purported plane collision with the first of the two towers.  It then moves through the rest of the day as New York and Washington, DC reel from the events, and further recounts the actions of the passengers on United’s Flight 93 as they willingly sacrificed themselves and took the plane into a remote Pennsylvania field.  The scenes of the devastation are still frightening and visceral to watch; in one news clip, a person opts to jump to his death instead of burning alive atop one of the towers and we can watch this poor soul plummet for hundreds of feet before a nearby building mercifully hides his final impact from our view.  Not everything is grisly and there are segments on the ensuing rescue efforts, patriotism and the resultant move into Afghanistan in search of the now dead Bin Laden.  It was a book that I purchased years ago precisely for the purpose of showing to the kids when they were old enough to more fully take in its meaning, and it was shown to each of the older two kids when I deemed them old enough.

But was Youngest now old enough?  At the time of the attacks, he was still in utero; he has spent his entire life in the shadow of those attacks and all that’s changed since then.  There is no understanding of life before the TSA, drones and a constant threat – real or imagined – of terrorism.  The seemingly ever-present surveillance camera was far less prevalent and we didn’t seem to be living with a sense of constantly impending menace.  Youngest has certainly known about the attacks from his mother and I, school and the media, but he’d never been exposed to the visual panoply of that time.  Making it an even harder question is that we’ve tried – and never fully succeeded – to keep him away from the graphic violence that permeates video games and the media.  He’s certainly seen violent movies, although rarely until this past year, but we’ve made efforts to keep the graphic combat games away and there is no – for now, but that will change – game system in the house.  The upshot is that he hasn’t become desensitized to the violence that permeates our environs.  This was brought home two years when I finally allowed him to watch the first part of Saving Private Ryan and he only lasted through the initial assault on Omaha Beach before having to stop watching.

The boy has an interest in history and the world around him, and preparing him and his siblings for the world is my principal role as a father.  It’s become an increasingly ugly world, one in which terrorists kill others for media coverage, the deranged arm themselves to hunt for our most vulnerable and schools now openly discuss what to do in the event that a gunman comes strolling down the main hallway.  Given his interest, his maturity and the nature of how we’ve had to adapt, I opted to share the DVD with him years before I did so with his older siblings.  We’d watch for a few minutes and then he’d pause the program to ask a question or listen to an explanation I’d offer for something that was on-screen.  It was a brutal experience and there were moments when I wept along with him as we viewed the CBS news reports until we could watch no further, ultimately turning it off midway through the program.

Our job as parents is to prepare our children to make their way in the world.  This means that we must pay attention to the world around us so that we can adjust plans and actions to fit the times, and what might have worked for an older child might have to be re-evaluated for the younger kids that follow.  It also means that we must be personally involved teaching these things, as uncomfortable as they might be.  We cannot leave the lessons for the schools alone, and we certainly shouldn’t leave them to the media culture; the children require a sense of context to help them make full sense of what they see and we parents are the ones who can best provide that background and context for them.  We know how they process information and whether or not they’re ready for the more unpleasant lessons of life around us.

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