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When I Explain 9/11 to My Kids

Remembering 9/11

It doesn't seem like 14 years ago. I suppose that's how I know I'm getting older. The time has passed so fast.

Even just hearing those words -- "September eleventh," no year needed -- take me back to that day.

For my children, though, it's just another day.

When I hear that date, I think of that gorgeous blue sky and drinking my coffee as the first news reports said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember those minutes of collective confusion before the second plane hit, those last minutes of global naivete when we weren't yet capable of conceiving all the horror that humans could do to perfect strangers.

September 11th was the end of my, of our, innocence. It was the day that we, my generation, were forced into war.

But for my children, September 11th this year is a Friday, like any other Friday. In our house it's "pizza-party-movie-night," their favorite night of the week.

Back in September 2001, I remember seeing news stories advising parents on what and how much of the news coverage they should allow their children to see, but 14 years have passed since then. Fourteen years of war. How do we explain a day like that now to our children without robbing them of what's left of their own innocence?

Mine is a military family. My children were born into war. They have lived their whole lives in military towns. War is woven into every detail of our family's existence. They were each planned, their birth dates calculated (as best we could) around deployments. We didn't always hit that mark. My middle daughter has a picture of the day she crawled over and met her dad. We have Christmas card portraits with my husband missing and boxes of birthday cards sent from him to us and us to him. Postmark: Afghanistan.

I have always been open and honest with my children about war. I've never tried to scare them, but it would have been silly to shield them from reality. Their dad has deployed many times, and their friends' moms and dads have, too.

Some of their friends' parents never came home. Some came home with missing arms or burned faces. My children aren't shocked by wheelchairs and blade runner legs. These things seem normal to them.

Explaining war to my children has been unavoidable. I had to tell them something, so I've told them the briefest, simplest version of the truth.

But explaining September 11th has been more difficult. War has been such a constant in my children's lives that it is incomprehensible to them that there was a point when we had peace. They don't understand when I tell them that someone started this war. They don't understand why anyone would start a war. To be honest, I don't understand, either.

For them, war is like the humidity or the mosquitoes here in Florida. No one likes them, but it doesn't do any good to complain.

My children also don't understand September 11th because, though they've always lived with war, war has always happened over there.

Their father has gone to war, war has not come to him. That's something for which I am exceedingly grateful, and proud. It's that last sliver of innocence that we -- my generation -- has fought, died and sacrificed mightily for in order to preserve for our children.

I am thankful that my children don't shudder at the thought of "Cantor Fitzgerald, 102nd floor."

I am thankful that they've never seen our Pentagon, the symbol of our nation's defense, penetrated by a civilian airplane filled with innocent people.

I am thankful that, for my children, Shanksville is just a tiny town in Pennsylvania, nothing more.

Thankful that they've never seen thousands of Americans waiting in line to give their own blood, and never seen firemen and police officers on TV, in a city far away, rushing toward almost certain death.

I am thankful that September 11th, 2001, happened only once. That it is only one day on our calendar, wedged between all the nothing-special days.

I am thankful because it means that all of these deployments, all of the deaths, all of the burns, severed spines and missing limbs, were worth something. It means that, despite any other metric of success, it is indisputable that we -- my generation -- have succeeded in keeping war away from home.

The briefest, simplest version of the truth that I share with my kids? September 11th was the day that we were attacked and refused to be defeated.

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Rebekah Sanderlin Family and Spouse Military Parenting

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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