For another year, 9/11 is past, but like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the significance of that day is noteworthy year-round. I wanted to share how I introduced the truth about that day for the first time to my toddlers.
As with all memorials and holidays, they exist to help us pause and remember or celebrate; but that doesn’t mean we can’t do those things on other days. After all, you tell your kids you love them and eat cake on their birthday, and I’m sure you do those things on other days, as well. And for those of us who have lost loved ones, the anniversaries of their passings carry a unique weight, but we also miss them the other 364 days of the year. It is with that understanding that I share with you my family’s approach to teaching 9/11 to toddlers. If it seems right to you (remember Primerrily primer no. 1: parents are primary!), don’t wait until 9/11/21 to try it.
At the breakfast table, amidst half-eaten eggs (reheated from the day before, because yes, I’m that mom who cooks a lot of eggs at once so I’m not cleaning pans ALL the time), we picked up one of our children’s favorite books: Little Blue Truck Leads the Way Several years ago when I had to take a business trip to New York City, my husband read that story to our little girl and told her that’s where I was. (I also recently learned that your kids can follow along with a Blue Truck stuffy that goes "beep beep" when they squeeze it. That would have been helpful at bedtime while mama was away!) So, in an effort to teach geography, my kids think that book is set in the Big Apple.
I recently revisited the story with them. I started reading, “Little Blue Truck rolled into the city…”
I explained that America is a country filled with lots of different states, and within those states, there are many different cities in between lots of towns. They are each beautiful and important in their own ways. New York City is special because it has the most people in the U.S., and many people all over the world see it as emblematic of our country.
Scraped the sky…
I told them about the Twin Towers. How, when they were built, they were the tallest buildings in the world. This was especially exciting to my son, who is crazy about LEGOs, all things construction, and doing whatever he can to build big things.
Zooom roared trucks
Down the avenue.
“The city is fast!
Said Little Blue.”
I shared that New Yorkers are known for driving fast, walking fast, and talking fast. They are also very hard workers. They are busy!
Went a siren.
Busy police car,
Things to do!”
Just as in all places, I explained that sometimes when people are impatient, they don’t act very nice. A similar refrain is found on the next page. Neither the bus nor the grocery truck liked the Little Blue Truck very much for his lack of haste, but soon they would find out that the Little Blue Truck was their friend, and they would be glad he was there to help them. As for the police cars, well, we are glad they can drive fast when they need to help with an emergency.
At that point, I put the book down and told them that several years ago on September 11th, our country experienced one of the biggest emergencies ever -- when we were attacked by some really bad guys. I explained that there were -- and there still are -- groups of people that don’t like America. They don’t like what we stand for. They don’t like our freedoms. I asked my kids to name some of our freedoms. My daughter said, “Freedom to pray!” and I clarified, “yes, we have the freedom to worship as our conscience leads us.” Thinking of his grandfather, my son said, “Freedom to be in the Army.” I said, “Yes, some people don’t like the men and women who protect our freedoms.” The other freedoms we talked about were the freedom to gather with our friends; to write, draw, and color; and to speak whatever is on our minds.
I told them that these bad guys hated America so much that they flew planes right into the Twin Towers, starting big fires, and eventually knocking lots of buildings down, which caused a lot of people to get hurt and many died. But there were helpers who raced to the rescue, just like the police car in the book! I asked them to name some helpers for me. My daughter said “paramedics,” my son said “firefighters,” and we continued to list police officers, doctors, nurses, and other neighbors working for our community.
I said, “Let’s keep reading the story, and I’ll tell you more about September 11th as we go.”
When we got to the part that shows the cars and trucks all in a tangle and Blue suggesting a solution, I explained that this was an emergency situation for the vehicles. Thankfully, they found a way to work together by following the advice of Little Blue, but not before the Mayor gave a speech and encouraged them to pay attention to Little Blue:
His Honor climbed right up on Blue
and gave a speech
(the way mayors do).
‘My friends,’ he said,
‘What wonderful luck --
This good advice
From a little blue truck!
My kids’ concept of a leader is a “line leader,” so every time we vote, I explain that we are helping choose our community’s line leaders. In this instance, I related that mayors are the line leaders of a town, and New York City’s mayor on September 11th was a man named Rudy Giuliani. We also shared that the bad guys attacked the Pentagon where our military line leaders work and in a Pennsylvania field.
In the same way that the cars and trucks -- with all their differences in size, color, and speed -- found a way to help each other, so did Americans on that September day. Some took care of others’ boo-boos, some put out fires, some hugged people crying, some rescued people who were trapped, and some even gave their life to save someone else’s. It was (and still is) a day that makes Americans feel sad and angry. It’s also a day that reminds us that we must come together -- E Pluribus Unum style -- to protect our country from the bad guys.
Trucks and buses got in line
With vans and taxis,
And it all went fine.
A taxi let a van go past.
The double-decker bus
Said, “I’ll go last.”
Being a parent is certainly not easy. One of the hardest things I find is having to break the news to my kid that the world is not always a good and beautiful place. I confessed that on September 11th, it did not “all go fine” like it did in the book. The men and women in our military -- the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard -- responded to defend our freedom and keep us safe, and that meant going to far away places to get the bad guy.
I continued, “Our freedom is worth fighting for. What are some ways that we can do that?”
My son was quick to answer, “With the Navy sword!” I must note that my husband is in the Navy Reserve, and he has a sword from his commissioning that my kids revere -- and with which they are NOT allowed to play.
I explained that yes, that is one way to fight, but only a few people can do that. Let me tell you three more ways that ALL of us can defend against bad guys.
One. We can fight with our ideas (I use my pointer finger and tap the side of my head, emphasizing the word “ideas”). The bad guys don’t like our ideas. Their ideas are different, but we believe our ideas are the best, and we know that the best ideas can change the world for the better.
Two. We can pray (I fold my hands and look up, to signify that I don’t have all the answers, no matter how much I think I know about the world). God is bigger than I am, bigger than any bad guy, bigger than all the bad guys put together. In the end, good always wins.
Three. We can love our neighbors (I put my hands over my heart). We need to practice “E Pluribus Unum.” We need to care for the people in our community so that our ideas don’t just stay in our heads and our hearts; they become actions lived out by our hands and feet.
I encouraged my kids to honor 9/11 by fighting for freedom in the last three ways and to be thankful for the ones still fighting for freedom “with the Navy Sword.” I told them that Americans are builders -- and rebuilders. Just like when our blocks get knocked over and we build them back up, Americans chose to rebuild where the attack took place. We built a museum and a memorial. I explained that mama and daddy went there several years ago, and one of the parts I loved most about it was that each person who died has their name written on the memorial. This resonated with my kids because they both love writing their name and seeing their name written; kids intrinsically know names have power and meaning. As I shared more about the memorial, my daughter exclaimed, “Oh mama, I want to go there!” Her enthusiasm simultaneously made my heart soar and ache. How I love her budding patriotism. How I hate having to teach her the truth about death, destruction, and terrorism. I tell her “we will go there,” and with knowing eyes, my husband and I look at each other and say “when the time is right.”
Neighbor, may all our children be like “the Little Blue Truck” in their classrooms, in their playgroups, in our families. Let’s tell our kids, “When you see something that’s not right, call it out, tell a grown-up, or try to find a solution that brings people together to work it out. Perhaps someday, someone will say of our children:
They clapped their hands and yelled,
for the little blue truck brave Americans [my edit]
who led the way.
Looking for additional resources to discuss Americans protecting our freedom? Check out Primerrily’s Reading to Remember 9/11.