What I Want My Kids to Know on September 11

Photo by Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0

9/11 is not over.

Fifteen years ago, we were launched into a tragedy we didn’t think was possible: America attacked during peacetime on its own soil. Our society was forever changed that day, and our children are still being impacted by it.

Among other things, 9/11 launched 2.7 million soldiers into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was one of them.

Today, I'm a mom. My kids weren’t alive when 9/11 happened. So how they view this defining moment depends a lot on me. Here’s what I want them to see and hear from their mom.

1. I want them to see the scariness in our world and love anyway.

The war drums that sent me to Iraq started beating the day we watched the Twin Towers crumble on TV, over and over again. My two sons have an open invitation to access my war story. Their questions have often been bold, always scary, and sometimes achingly simple.

I don't shield my kids from hearing how terrified I felt at the sight of the Twin Towers falling, because I want them to listen close. I want them to hear—not the shock and awe of the terror story, but the part that comes after that. The part of my story where love storms in and remakes what violence broke.

We talk about fear with our kids, because it gives them a chance to see love pushing back against the darkness. The horrific act of destruction carried out by 19 men pales in comparison to the power of love when we come together in response to violence. In the days after 9/11, millions of people rushed to donate, volunteer, honor, grieve, and defy hate. Other countries gathered America close and declared the attacks were a crime against the whole world, not just the people of America.

When my kids listen close, they bear witness to the power of love to create the next part of the story, to unmake violence.

My kids aren't scared, because they've heard about people who chose to love anyway.

2. I want them to know who they are.

On the first day of a family visit to Haiti, our host said something that stayed with me: "There are two kinds of people in this world: helpers, and those who need help. You are helpers today."

I've never forgotten her invitation. How simple it can be to decide who you are.

"Where are the helpers, mom?" That’s the question I want my kids to ask when we talk about 9/11.

"Do you see them, sons?" I’ll say. "The helpers are the ones running to those who need help. Do you see them? The helpers at Ground Zero were the firemen, police officers, and volunteers who spent weeks digging through rubble and feeding rescue workers. They knew who they needed to be at that moment in the story. Now it's your moment, and that’s who you are—you are the helpers, waiting to rush toward those who need help."

3. I want them to understand that love overpowers hate. Every.Single.Time.

The people who attacked America on 9/11 believed that violence was the best way. In the aftermath, all of us were tempted by the belief we could set things right with a few days of shock and awe.

And yet there was another story, even as the dust settled 15 years ago. People reaching across enemy lines, even then. Muslims standing in solidarity with their fellow Americans.

We can still see it in our world today, if we know where to look. My kids have seen how violence can summon a strength that wasn't there before, how we can unmake violence with our love. 

This love brought people together to pray for Iraq when Baghdad was bombed earlier this year.

This love poured into the streets after bullets rained down on Orlando. On that terrible day, this love looked like a plate of lopsided chocolate chip cookies, left by my sons on our neighbors' doorstep. This was their act of rushing in. This was 8- and 9-year-old love stomping out the hate in their own neighborhood. 

On September 11, we lost nearly 3,000 priceless lives. Our definition of security has been forever altered. Our children are looking to us for an answer to violence. They are looking to us to tell them how to walk in this precarious world they live in. What are we going to tell them?

Let’s tell them how the terrorists plotted to unmake us—and how, in response, we choose to love harder. Let's look our kids in the eye and remind them that they are made for this world. They are the helpers.

Lets show them how to look the scariness of the world in the eye and choose to love anyway. Love breaks darkness. Every. Single. Time.

About Diana Oestreich

Former Iraq War combat medic who lives to wage peace, sexual assault nurse, mom/adventure guide to two rambunctious sons, and key relationships officer for Preemptive Love Coalition.

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What I Want My Kids to Know on September 11
What I Want My Kids to Know on September 11
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