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9/11 Anniversary: How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism

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Jennifer Ginsberg: This 9/11, many parents will be wondering how to talk to their children about terrorism. For children who were not yet born or are too young to remember that fateful day nine years ago, questions may still arise, as the day will be commemorated in the media and they will likely overhear people recounting the horrors that occurred.

Let's face it: Terrorism is an awful subject. None of us wants to have to even mention something so incomprehensibly terrible to our children, let alone have an in-depth discussion about it. But if you avoid bringing up the topic with your children, you may inadvertently create more anxiety by reinforcing the idea that it is too scary to even broach. By not shying away from the difficult questions, you will let your children know that they can express their concerns without you dismissing them. You will provide a safe space for them to simply be heard.

Of course, our instinct as parents is to protect our children at all costs. However, given the frightening nature of terrorism and the shadowy nature of its architects, it may be impossible to absolve their fears entirely. I don't advocate lying to children, but you may have to get creative to find a way to discuss this without inciting unnecessary anxiety. By letting your children know that you will always be there for them and do everything in your power to keep them safe, you will acknowledge their fears without sugarcoating the facts.

With my own children, I intend to make it clear that I reject the idea that Islam itself is inherently the problem, since I know that many Muslims are good neighbors and upstanding citizens -- not to mention supporters of democracy. 

However, I do realize that, at locations all around the world, violence has been -- and in some places, is being -- committed against innocent people by Muslim extremists, in the name of Islam. I will not bury my head in the sand and deny that harsh reality out of political correctness -- especially for the sake of my children. 

One jumping-off point for discussion is the debate over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. Older children have undoubtedly heard about this, as media outlets have saturated us with heated reports and contradictory information. I would take this opportunity to talk to my children about the concept of religious pluralism. While it is vital to uphold freedom of religion, it is another matter if there are grounds for suspicion that this Islamic center will be used to recruit, justify or incite terrorism. You can let your children know that these are tough questions that don't have simple answers.

You can ask older children their opinions on the matter. Is it inappropriate or insensitive for downtown Manhattan -- the scene of the worst terror attack in U.S. history -- to house a mosque whose leader has yet to denounce the deliberate murder of almost 3,000 people via suicide terror? What is the potential downside? Is there any good that could come from having a mosque in that location?

I would tell my children that Muslims in the U.S. who support the values of religious pluralism and freedom have the right to build a community center anywhere, including the proposed site near Ground Zero. However, I would not withhold the fact that I am disturbed by the ideological ambiguity of the leaders of this particular project, and their reticence to denounce terrorism.

I would also talk to my children about the importance of having integrity, even when one's ethical stance goes against the popular opinion. History reminds us that evil triumphs when good people remain silent. For the most part, the American Muslim community has been alarmingly quiet about their stance on Islamic terrorism, in my opinion. I can only believe that most Jews, Protestants and Catholics in their position would be blasting their condemnation from the rooftops.

You can let your children know that if their teacher, coach or clergyperson says or does something that seems inappropriate or just plain wrong, they are not only allowed, but obligated to speak up. You can remind them that people -- even friends they trust and those in positions of power -- will occasionally make missteps. Inaction and silence only perpetuate such wrongdoing.

Above all, emphasize that you will always support your children when they tell the truth. Remind them that their safety is the most important thing to you. By having an honest and thorough discussion, it will be made clear that while Islamic fundamentalism is being used in many places around the world to incite violence -- and it is important to ask questions and acknowledge this deadly trend, so that the free world can defeat it -- it is never acceptable to have prejudice against a group of people or a religion as a whole.


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