on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary:
do we handle our kids' hardest questions?
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
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
up topics yourself as they emerge. Take
advantage of "teachable moments."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.
more guidelines, see Teaching
about Controversial Topics.
Spiegler formerly worked for Morningside Center, and is currently
the Director of Program Resource Development at the NYS Office
of Children and Family Services.
essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.