Reflections on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary:
How do we handle our kids' hardest questions?

By Jinnie Spiegler

When I woke up on May 2 to the news that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed, my first thoughts were of my nine-year-old daughter. Would she hear the news? What would she think about it? Would she understand the connection between his death and the wars we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we've discussed many times?

I decided to tell her that morning on the way to school, thinking that she might hear about it anyway and I wanted her to learn about it from me first.

She had many questions that morning, and many more that evening at the dinner table. Pretty much that whole week, our walks to school consisted of questions about Osama bin Laden: Why did he do it? Is he worse than Hitler? How did he hide out in that place? Did he have children? How did he get the people to fly those planes? Why did they kill him? Why didn't he have a trial? How did Obama find him? Why did they throw his body in the river? Why does he hate Americans? Why are we still at war?

My daughter's questions revealed to me that she knew a lot more than that I thought she did. I'd just told her about 9/11 a year ago--she hadn't even been born at the time. It was also clear that she had been talking about these issues with her classmates. Her questions ranged from emotional to historical to moral to political, and they were all intertwined. Clearly, this was not going to be easy!

Although her questions waned a bit as the week wore on, the conversations among her friends and classmates continued for weeks, even months. It seemed that these discussions were happening before school, at recess, during free time, on the playground--everywhere except in the classroom. Maybe the kids felt they couldn't discuss the subject in class. Or maybe there wasn't time to address the issue in class.

One day in late June during free time in art, two of my daughter's classmates decided to draw a picture of Osama bin Laden. Clearly, they still had a lot of feelings about the situation. Unfortunately, they got "in trouble" for drawing the picture and it was torn up and thrown away.

My daughter told the story in that gleeful tone that third graders are fond of: "They got in trouble and I didn't!" But it made me sad and I explained the reason to her. Those two boys were clearly fascinated with the story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, and needed to talk about it. I didn't think their feelings should be brushed under the rug, negated, or, worse, punished.

These discussions were complicated by the fact that my daughter's class had three Muslim students. I saw this as positive but it needed to be handled carefully. Not surprisingly, these particular kids and their families had differing cultural, religious and political beliefs. One of the children had complex and critical views of the United States, and engaged in some heated discussions about those opinions. The other Muslim kids in the class seemed less concerned with the question and didn't chime in. Again, my daughter and I had many talks about this student's point of view and I always tried to complicate her thinking about why he held the opinions he did.

I wish there had been a way to bring the discussions my daughter and her classmates were having into the classroom, in a safe, caring context. But I know it would have been an especially sensitive and challenging situation for any teacher. It certainly was for me as a parent.

As the tenth anniversary of September 11 approaches, we parents and teachers can expect a lot of questions to come up for discussion with our kids. How can we answer their questions honestly, acknowledge their complex feelings, and help them understand our points of view (because they definitely want to know how we feel)? How can we present information that is age appropriate and at the same time gets them to think about the larger political context? Below are some suggestions for dealing with questions about 9/11--or any controversial issue.

  • Teachers can set a tone at the beginning of school year that conveys to students that you encourage discussions about controversial issues and diversity. Do activities at the beginning of the year that highlight and celebrate diversity. Bring up topics yourself as they emerge. Take advantage of "teachable moments."

  • Discuss it right away. If a controversial issue comes up in the classroom or at home, discuss it immediately. Even if you don't have time for a full discussion at that moment, answer one or two questions so that you give a clear message that it is okay to discuss the issue. Sometimes it's better not to wait for kids (at least older kids) to bring up the topic. If it's a major issue, they're probably talking about it anyway, as I learned with Osama bin Laden. Start with their questions. If they need more information that you don't have, encourage them to do research of their own.

  • Acknowledge their feelings. Several times my daughter would tell me she hated Osama bin Laden and she was glad he was dead. I sometimes cringed when she said this because I don't want my daughter wanting anyone dead, no matter how negatively I might feel about the person. However, we have to accept children's feelings for what they are and help them to feel safe expressing them.

  • Parents and teachers should work together. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my daughter asked me why they weren't talking about it in school. I encouraged her to ask her teacher that question--and I asked the teacher as well. The teacher said she had been grappling with how to discuss this deadly event in a way that wouldn't scare the kids. (In the end, she had the class discuss two things: the science of what causes earthquakes and tsunamis, which fascinated the kids, and how people around the world pitched in to help. Her approach sounded pitch perfect to me.) It's great if teachers can let parents know when they are discussing controversial issues in the classroom so that parents can reinforce the discussions at home and can raise any concerns they may have with the teacher.

  • Watch out for isolation. Because controversial issues often involve identity/diversity issues, teachers need to be careful not to isolate a student or a group of students. For example, if you are going to discuss gay marriage in your classroom and there is one child who has gay parents, talk to the parents and child in advance and see how comfortable they are with the idea. They may have mixed feelings--like relief and embarrassment. Work together to bring the subject up without making the child (or their parents) feel uncomfortable or shining a spotlight on them.

  • Tie it into the curriculum. As much as possible, teachers should connect the topics students are interested in to the curriculum (often social studies or current events). Find reading materials that connect to the topic. If you find the children are very interested and it's possible, create a mini-unit on the topic at hand. (Often this website can help.)

  • Share your own point of view. Children--especially at the elementary school level--want to know what adults think. This can be challenging for teachers who don't want impressionable children to take their opinions as facts. So as a teacher, it's good to be as honest as possible but also take into account the age of the children, the context of the conversation, and your relationship with the students when deciding how to share your opinions. For parents, it's simpler. I always tell my daughter my opinion about a given topic, even if that opinion is strong or controversial. It is important to let kids know that other people have different perspectives and to share what those opinions are. Encourage your child to talk with people who may have different points of view. And be sure to let them know that their opinion can differ from yours!

  • Be a role model. If you're a parent, don't shy away from discussing important issues at the dinner table. If you're a teacher, talk with your colleagues and your students about the issues that interest you. Always keep in mind the child's age, background knowledge and level of sensitivity, but include them in the conversation. Use language the child understands, acknowledge their feelings, answer their questions, and ask them what they think.

For more guidelines, see Teaching about Controversial Topics.

Jinnie Spiegler formerly worked for Morningside Center, and is currently the Director of Program Resource Development at the NYS Office of Children and Family Services.

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:

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