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Introducing the youngest generation to Sept. 11
By Samantha Critchell, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Children need to talk about Sept. 11 and express their feelings about the tragic events of the day just as adults do, says a child development specialist.
The conversation might happen now, on the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks; it might happen in a few weeks or months; and for some children, especially those who were either too close physically or emotionally, or too young to remember the actual events, the conversation might be years down the road.
"When" isn't as important as "how" the talk happens, says Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in Indiana.
Parents are in the best position to direct the conversation, infusing it with their own values as the children ask questions and offer commentary, Myers-Walls says.
Myers-Walls launched a Web site hours after the attacks to guide parents who wanted to help their children cope. She also has researched children's reactions to wars and disasters.
Her advice to parents: "I suggest, first of all, letting kids know it's OK to talk about this. Use leading statements or open-ended questions but do not sit down and say, `We're going to talk about Sept. 11 now."'
Another starting point, she says, it to have children draw a picture about what they know about Sept. 11. The picture that emerges will tell a parent a lot about where the children are in their understanding of the event and its consequences. Then ask a lot of questions about the details of the picture.
The age of a child might affect how to approach the topic but it isn't a black-and-white guideline if the topic should be addressed, according to Myers-Walls. She recalls a post-Sept. 11 story of a 2 1/2-year-old who said "plane crash" as his mother prepared to go on a business trip.
"As soon as the child is verbal, you might broach the subject," she says.
Myers-Walls cautions that if parents don't raise the topic, they might find their children instead getting information from well-intentioned preschool teachers who helm a project on heroes or elementary school students who might give all the historical facts but are wary of adding analysis.
Or, even worse, she says, the children will pick up only bits and pieces of news reports and conversations without getting the whole story, perpetuating misunderstandings.
For young children who don't remember anything about the attacks, they might "experience" them for the first time this year as news footage is replayed, so parents have to be very clear that these events are not happening now, Myers-Walls says. Parents might want to videotape some of the news coverage around and on Sept. 11 this year and bring out the tape when they feel the time is right to have a discussion -- this way parents also can edit what their children see and don't see.
Children's book author Mary Pope Osborne says she hopes her new book "New York's Bravest" (Alfred A. Knopf), a tall tale about a celebrated 1800s New York firefighter who is missing after rescuing civilians from a burning hotel, will help introduce these toddlers to themes that are relevant yet removed from Sept. 11.
"The story says that through the spirit of heroes, (the heroes) stay with us. It says we might suffer a physical loss but we gain from their heroic acts," explains Osborne, herself a New Yorker.
It's a good story anytime, she adds, but it's a particularly good story now because, depending on a child's age, a parent can then discuss the book's dedication to the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. It's a back entrance to a discussion about Sept. 11 that might be easier for youngsters to digest, Osborne says.
Unfortunately, says Myers-Walls, the story of Sept. 11 doesn't wrap up neatly like the books most children are used to.
"In this ending the bad guy seems to have escaped. Tell your kids this
is a good lesson of life: Not everything wraps up into nice, neat
On the Net:
Purdue Extension Sept. 11 Web site: