What Does That Song Mean?: Explaining 9/11 to Children

Sophie and I love music. We’re always listening to different genres and artists – from country to classical – usually in the car. My inquisitive backseat driver has the habit of asking me, “What is she signing about?” Or “What does he mean when he sings that?” Or one of my personal favorites of late, “Who is Suzanne and why is he singing about her?” (referring to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain — I kid you not).

I do my best to answer Sophie and try to probe her mind by asking what she thinks or whether she thinks about people during songs. She’s an inquisitive kid and can usually tell if I’m trying to BS my way through an answer.

Four days ago, I was listening to one of my favorite song tributes to September 11, 2001, Alan Jackson’s Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning? And while this time I was alone in the car, I could hear in the back of my mind Sophie asking me, “What is that man signing about?”

It occurred to me I have no idea how I will answer Sophie when she asks that question (and I know she will one day ask). This got me thinking that when the time comes, how do I explain 9/11 to Sophie? Whether she is 5-years-old or 15, there’s no simple way to explain terrorism. How do you talk about hatred to a child whose idea of “hate” comes closest to disliking vegetables?

It’s a tough question since I still have a hard time comprehending what I witnessed 11 years ago. How do you explain a national tragedy to a child when you feel complete shock, awe and sadness thinking about an event that has changed lives forever?

I read a Facebook post recently that said today’s 5th and 6th graders have never known a pre-9/11 America. One mother said that trying to explain the event to her children was one of the hardest things she have ever had to do as a parent. It’s sad –  but a reality – that explaining that day is now a part of our parenting culture.

Perhaps the answer lies within the power of a song and its simple words. In his masterpiece, Alan Jackson never mentions 9/11, September, terrorism, hijacking, World Trade Center, airplanes, or Osama Bin Laden. Instead he describes the feeling as when the world stopped turning. He describes it as a time when people reexamined their lives to look for the good and not the bad; a time when communities came together and hung American flags in a show of commrodery and patriotism. A time when people felt scared and unsure about what the future will bring.

Maybe when I do get that question from Sophie, I’ll take a lesson from Alan’s words and describe it as a time when something bad happened to our country, and we all remember the day in our lives. That bad day made people scared, but it also helped people come together and appreciate their lives. Perhaps it would help this entire nation if we all remembered 9/11 in that same way, especially about how people came together in a world that will never be the same.

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