The neurotic parent’s guide to telling your kids about the epic horrors of humanity

So this happened.

It all started out so innocently. A few days back, the kid was perusing BrainPOP.com (which I think is awesome and wholly support, but have no affiliation with, lest there be any doubt), a site with all kinds of kid-friendly edumacational animated videos and other curriculum-based content covering everything from space exploration to civil rights to classical music. Oh, and did I mention - terrorism?

Yep, terrorism.

In the midst of video-hopping around the site, she stumbled on one about 9/11, and was intrigued – as one might suppose she would be – by the site’s stern warning to WATCH THIS VIDEO WITH A PARENT. OFMG WE’RE SO TOTALLY SERIOUS, KID. (And, to BrainPOP’s credit, that warning was really SPOT fucking ON.)

So, she approached me with this.

Her: It says I should watch this video about 9/11 with an adult. Will you watch it with me?

Me: *saucer-eyed terrified stare*

Her: I want to watch it.

Me: Oh, look at the time! I should start dinner!

Her: Mom, it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Me: Oh. Umm, isn’t there a nice video about trees or puppies or building codes you could watch?

Her: I want to watch this. I want to know about it.

Me: How about something on infectious diseases? OOH! OR ALGEBRA!

Her: *shakes head seriously*

Me: Gaaaaaaah. Alright. Fine. But I’m going to visibly wince and sigh heavily throughout, just so we’re clear.

This wasn’t the first time she’d asked about 9/11, mind you. It had come up before by way of something random on TV – a promo for a show she’d caught a snippet of months ago, but didn’t quite fully grasp the meaning and significance of – but back then I’d been able to delay her curiosity. Distract her with shiny things and whatnot. No more, apparently.

Let me just say up-front: it wasn’t horrible. The video itself was animated, so the realness of the whole thing was sort of tempered slightly. Which is not a bad thing when you’re embarking on visually demonstrating to a just-barely-nine-year-old how terrorists flew a passenger plane full of innocent people into a huge skyscraper, and then, and then, and then… well, you know the story. It doesn’t get any easier or better. The whole narrative, told as you must tell it – frankly and honestly and fully acknowledging the real and indisputable horror of it – is pretty much a grand tour of the darkest, grimmest parts of humanity. The exact place you don’t want to be the designated tour guide of.

Except maybe you do. Because as hard as it is to break these things to your kids (and oh god, it is), at least you’re the one there trying to help them understand. Though I’m going to admit right now, I didn’t really know how to help her make sense of 9/11, because I have a hard time making sense of it in any complete way myself.

Her: But why did these people do this?

Me: Well, there’s a lot of history behind it, at lot of backstory over many years – decades, really. It has to do with U.S. policies and the fundamentalist Muslim perspective that this specific radical group, Al Qaeda, had regarding those policies – generalized in their minds to America as a whole.

Her: *blink*

Me: Sometimes people do horrible things to other people and we don’t really understand why.

That last bit, simple-sounding though it may be, is the real and awful truth. And this will give you some indication of what kind of kid my daughter is: after all of this horror, and after all my fumbling and EPIC FAIL!-like attempts at explaining it, she turned, put her arms around me, and said, “I’m really sorry you had to go through that.”

I know. I totally hit the jackpot offspring-wise.

So then I excused myself, went into the bathroom, sat on the commode (as my grandmother would say), and sobbed into an enormous wad of toilet paper for about ten minutes. Because though *she* handled it like a champ and seemed okay with this new and terrible knowledge, *I* wasn’t ready for her to know something so horrible about the world and the people in it. I was crushed that I, her mother, had just helped to unveil and plant permanently into her mind one of the worst examples of humanity and what it’s capable of that I know. It strangely felt like a betrayal of some sort on my part. I mean, my job is to shield her from pain and sorrow and the horrors of the world, not drop them directly into her lap - TA-DA! Heeeeeeeeere’s Mindfuckery! Right?

It was an emotional, feeling reaction that had nothing to do with the truth, of course. That being, that my job is to shield her from pain and sorrow, yes, but also to help her understand the hard realities of life on this planet earth. One parental mission must be balanced with the other, always. I can’t protect her from the fact that awful things happen in the world. But I can hold her hand and try, however ineptly and incompletely, to make that awfulness comprehensible and not just wholly terrifying and overwhelming. That’s the real hard work of being a parent right there.

(Though, between you and me, I personally still find a lot of things like this wholly terrifying and overwhelming.) (But I’m doing my damnedest to not project that and lay my own personal head-trip(s) on her.) (I may still need a giant wad of toilet paper to cry into after shit like this in the future though, just sayin’.)

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6 Responses to The neurotic parent’s guide to telling your kids about the epic horrors of humanity

  1. Rob Carlson says:

    This is a great follow-up video to show how normal folks with boats turned into heroes that day:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDOrzF7B2Kg

  2. Anonymous says:

    You handled it as well as anyone could and would. I don’t think you are ever really prepared for these things, but kids can handle more than we think, IMHO. Job well done.

  3. NathanPralle says:

    We’ve only barely touched upon the horrors of humanity with our 3-yo-son and I cannot say that I’m looking forward to it. For one aspect of trying to have someone understand *why* people would ever do such things, but the other aspect of destroying his idyllic view of the world and the people in it. For him right now, MOST people are simply….nice. All the time. Or most of the time. And everyone would love him if they got to know him, and who would ever hurt him? Wouldn’t you love a hug?

    I love that perspective. I wish we all had it. I do not relish destroying it, even if its for his safety and knowledge.

  4. Issa Crazy says:

    Sometimes I think they handle it better than we think they will, just because it’s more removed for them. They weren’t here, so it’s harder to grasp maybe? I remember learning about the Holocaust at 12 though. Really learning, not just the fluff books that I read and have allowed my oldest to read in this past year. Nothing prepares you for hearing/seeing reality of horribleness. Of pure hatred.

    At nine? M is still a bit young to completely grasp it. Not because she’s not highly intelligent. Just because she has only known love so far in her life.

  5. Summer says:

    “That being, that my job is to shield her from pain and sorrow, yes, but also to help her understand the hard realities of life on this planet earth.”

    YES. THIS. I called my mom on 9/11 so she could help me understand, so I could help MY kids understand. It’s what moms do. Thank goodness.

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