On Thursday, I went to talk to my 4 year old daughter’s pre-k class about 9/11. I was supposed to be listening to the Signal Regimental Commander talking about micro cyber, but I figured my 4 year old’s pre-k class was a more important place to be. Anyway…

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this. Last year, I spoke to my older daughter’s first grade class and while I popped my head into her 2nd grade class this year, I made sure I was downstairs for Little Bear’s class because it was her first time having Mommy come to class.

While I was in my 2nd grade daughter’s class, I listened to another little girls’ father talk about 9/11. We all have our different ways of telling stories and 9/11 is a difficult one to explain to little kids. I mean, sure, we could be honest and talk about the bad men who flew planes into buildings but in the ensuing questions, can we really answer why to a 2nd grader? As I listened, this little girls father started talking about the bombs he discovered while doing route clearance in Afghanistan. He spoke of how the highest education level in Afghanistan was the 3rd grade when we’d initially invaded but how now it had gone up to 5th grade. And he sat there and told a group of 2nd graders, most of whom had mothers or fathers in the military and many of those overseas right now, that they were probably going to still be fighting this war when they were all grown up.
Which, if you think about it, is kind of both true and depressing. I mean, this war started before any of the kids he was talking to were even born. How can you explain an event to kids that happened long before some of them were even in diapers and make it so that they understand but are not terrified? I know that night, I had a 2nd grader in my bed, talking about the bad dream she had about bombs and her daddy.

Now, I freely admit, I’m not one of the cool parents who let’s their kids watch the big kid shows on TV. I cringe at Victoria’s Secret commercials and change the channel when commercials for violent video games come on. And that’s only when the tv is actually ever on. I’m kind of strict that way. So I was very cautious about what to say to a group fo 4 year olds about September 11. I really wasn’t prepared for some of the things I heard.

Kids say the damndest things.

I started off asking what they thought freedom was. A little boy hopped up and said that freedom meant taking guns and killing the bad guys. Another one chimed in and said blowing away all the bad guys. Then a little girl raised her hand and said freedom meant desert. Which wasn’t all that bad, in this mom’s eyes. I got a few more answers, some involving the American flag. Then the real fun began.

I asked who they thought gave them freedom. And they of course said soldiers right away but then I started trying to explain that the police and the firemen and the doctors and nurses were all part of our way of life that gave us freedom. I said who else would give us freedom. Jesus. No really, two little kids said Jesus. It was so funny and cute. After I was done laughing, I told them that teachers were some of the most important people for our freedom. They looked at their teachers in a little bit of amazement. I told them it was important to be educated, otherwise people could tell them anything at all and they wouldn’t know the difference. And then they insisted that desert was the most important part of freedom. Again.

Then a little girl asked if I was a Mommy. And I said yes, and I pointed out my kiddo. She said, well do you work? I said, yes, I’m a soldier. She said, Mommies don’t work. I paused for a sec and said, well some mommies don’t get paid for work but all mommies work. Some work in the home and some work outside of it, like me. And then came the rousing debate about whose mommy worked and whose didn’t.

Entertaining 4 year olds really isn’t my strong point.

I guess my point in all of this is that 9/11 was a day that something really bad happened to our nation. We were attacked. Great symbols were destroyed and many people who were not warriors or combatants lost their lives. Little kids understand to varying degrees that something bad happened but they don’t understand the why. Hell, most adults still don’t understand the why. We can sum up what happened that day into pat phrases like “they hate us for our freedom” but that’s a convenient lie, something we tell our children.

The reality of 9/11 is that it is much more complex. I would like to say that 9/11 changed all of us. It changed our military, that’s for certain. But did it make us better citizens? Did it make us slow down and appreciate the fact that we are lucky enough to have been born in a nation that has rule of law, where an immigrant’s son can grow up to be president, where girls can go to school without fear of acid being thrown in their faces?

Our nation is not perfect, not by a long shot. We are deeply flawed. But at the end of it all, our nation is still the best place on earth to live and that is what we must teach our children about 9/11. Not that there are bad people out there who want to hurt us. Not that there are people out there who don’t want to live like us. Let’s keep it simple for the time being and break it down to a 4 year old level.

Something bad happened. We, as a nation, were wounded. But we got back up, dusted ourselves off, and started rebuilding. Take a moment to remember those who gave their lives on 9/11 and on every day since. Take a moment tomorrow and think of the good things in your life that aren’t about toys and games and stuff but about the people who make your life richer. And if your husband or your wife is home with you, kiss them and remember why you love them. Because there are thousands of husbands and wives and sons and daughters who don’t get to kiss their loved one because of 9/11.