September 6, 2011
AP National Writer
NEW YORK — David Rand cheerfully acknowledges he’s an overprotective father. An ex-Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s also a single dad to 5-year-old Emma.
And so when Emma’s grandmother suggested recently that the girl come visit her in Texas, flying from California as an unaccompanied minor, Rand had a blunt reaction: “Heck, no!”
He cites Sept. 11 as part of the reason. “The images just go through your mind,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something terrible happened and I wasn’t with her. If she were alone, and it was an attack — the guilt would just be too much.”
Ten years after the attacks, there’s no question that Sept. 11 continues to impact our national psyche, and some of that can be seen in how we raise our children. The Associated Press spoke with a number of families around the country and found that for some parents, the broader sense of insecurity and shaken confidence that accompanied the disaster has manifested itself in very concrete ways: Tightening curfews, giving children cell phones to keep better track of them, even barring them from air travel.
First and foremost, parents struggle with how and when to explain the disaster, especially to younger kids. For many children born after 2001, Sept. 11 is simply part of the wallpaper of their generation — not unlike like the JFK assassination for baby boomers. But other kids, especially those old enough to remember the attacks, are more conscious of it.
And their response to it can change over time. “Children, as they get older, rethink certain events and come to a new understanding of them,” says Dr. David Schonfeld of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who spent more than two years working with children in New York City schools after the attacks. “What you first explain to a 7-year-old comes back differently when they’re 17 and leaving for college.”
Rand, the ex-Marine, now a 31-year-old college student in Sacramento, says his daughter “hasn’t asked” about 9/11, “and I haven’t volunteered the information. I wouldn’t want to scare a 5-year-old to death.”
When the time is right, though, he will tell her. And he’s also open to bringing her to New York some day. “The odds of the same thing happening are so remote,” he says.
Across the country in Massachusetts, Kelly Johnson, 28, has spoken openly about 9/11 to her 7-year-old, Seamus. “I don’t how else to talk to him but to be truthful,” says Johnson, who lives in Fitchburg. “He’s a very smart kid.” She’s not sure, though, if he’s absorbed all the details: “He’s more focused on the firefighters.”
But the attacks haven’t changed her approach to raising kids, she says: “I’m the type of person who moves forward, and looks for the good. That’s how I parent, too.”
Johnson has no trouble letting Seamus travel by plane — he’s even flown as an unaccompanied minor. That’s an experience Karen Hunt’s kids — ages 15, 12 and 5 — won’t likely have.
Hunt and her family had been scheduled to fly to Colorado on Sept. 11, 2001, and none of them has been on a plane since. “We just don’t want to be one of the casualties,” says Hunt, 36.
In the years since the attacks, they moved from Portland some 20 miles away to Sandy, to be away from the city. Both parents got new jobs. The family will visit Seattle — by car — but not the Space Needle, and they will not go to large cities like Los Angeles or New York.
Hunt says one of her kids has mentioned studying in Europe for college. She is resolutely against it — “unless they make one hell of a bridge that goes across the ocean,” she says.
Some families feel the reverberations of 9/11 far less. Deanna Crask-Stone, a mother of two in Gallup, N.M., says that while she and her husband may be more vigilant when they travel, the family otherwise doesn’t think much about the attacks.
“Maybe if we lived elsewhere we’d think about terrorism more,” she says. “In the big city you need to take different precautions.”
Her son Jesse, 11, paid attention when Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces earlier this year. “But as far as 9/11, I’m really not sure how aware he is,” says Crask-Stone. Queried by a reporter, Jesse said he didn’t really recall what happened on Sept. 11.
It’s different for the vast majority of kids in New York. “For New York children in particular, this in an indelible part of their DNA now,” says Christy Ferer, whose husband, former Port Authority executive director Neil D. Levin, died in the attacks. “They will have to live with the feeling of potential terrorism for the rest of their lives — a lot longer than us adults.”
Ferer, who is now chairman of development for the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan, channeled some of her grief into a project that brought kids together to create works of art about the attacks. Those artworks, created not long after Sept. 11, have been formed into a book, “Art for Heart: Remembering 9/11” (Assouline), to be released in early September, with proceeds going to the memorial.
The book includes a poem Megan Greene wrote about her aunt, Lorraine Mary Greene Lee, a fire marshal in the second tower who stayed behind, tragically it turns out, to make sure everyone had gone. Megan, now 20 and studying fashion merchandising, was in fifth grade when the attacks happened.
Her memories of that day range from her school class in New Jersey slowly emptying as parents came one by one to collect pupils (a memory shared by many American kids); to the awful wait to get news of her aunt’s death; to her grandmother’s heart attack that very day, compounding the family’s misery (she had surgery and survived.) Greene says the events changed her in many ways, and not just because of her grief.
“That day made me who I am,” says Greene. “It made me grow up. Losing someone made me stronger. It made me never take family or friends for granted.”
Her world view changed too — darkened, perhaps. “When I was 10 I didn’t think the world was a bad place,” she says. “Mom and Dad kept me safe. Now, I second-guess people more.”
And she treads more cautiously — including on outings to nearby New York City.
“When I go there, I never go alone,” she says. “I’d be too nervous. I am definitely afraid of terrorism. I want to be with people I know — family, friends, who could take care of me if something happened.”
Some parents say they worry less about their children’s security and more about the impact of 9/11 on their understanding — and acceptance — of other cultures.
“The kids are getting an image of the Muslim world that I didn’t have growing up,” says Niki Adler, a mother of two in suburban Pittsburgh who works in public relations at Carnegie Mellon University. “My job is to counteract some of that. This is a culture like anybody else’s culture. My kids need to understand it better.”
Adler’s older son, Bobby, was only 4 when the attacks happened. “I actually don’t have many memories of it,” he tells a reporter. “I was too young to comprehend what was going on.”
But he also believes “it’s the worst thing that’s happened in our modern history,” a sentiment he shared last year when his eighth grade history teacher asked the class to privately write down their thoughts on 9/11. “I wrote that it must have been really terrible for the people going through it.”
His teacher, Jeffrey Holliday, says he first assigned the writing exercise to a group of kids just 24 hours after the actual attacks, and he’s given the assignment to his middle-schoolers each anniversary since. He promises them he won’t look at what they’ve written until he retires (although as the 10th anniversary nears, he is tempted to peek). But he gets a sense of what they think from class discussion, and he says the feelings and opinions among 13-year-olds are as diverse as those of adults.
“We all carry something different from this,” he says. If there’s any common factor, he notes, it’s a keen attention among kids — especially younger ones — to how the adults in their lives dealt with the event at the time, and how they regard it today.
Schonfeld, the pediatrician who worked with New York kids after the attacks, says parents don’t always realize that their stress over events like Sept. 11 affects how their children feel.
“If parents have difficulty coping, their children do, too,” he says. “The kids don’t even need to know what’s going on” — they’ll feel it anyway.
Which is not to say parents are better off hiding their stress or fears.
“If you don’t talk to your children, you’re more likely to make them anxious,” says Schonfeld, who also directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “If you just tell them that it’s all OK, that’s not genuine. Kids need to learn to cope. They can only do that if they see you coping with your own distress.”
The impact of Sept. 11 on families is such a fundamental part of the event’s aftermath that even the 911Memorial.org website has a page of advice called “Talking to your children about 9/11.”
“Don’t avoid difficult conversations,” it says. “Answer questions about the attacks with facts. … Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers.”
And, of course: “Listen.”