How 9/11 changed me as a parent

Claire McCarthy, MD

September 11th, 2001 changed me forever as a parent—but not in the way I would have expected.

Like so many other people, all I wanted that morning was to get home to my family. When I finally did, I found them in the living room staring in stunned silence at the television. Michaela was 10, Zack 9, Elsa 4, and Natasha was 9 months old. I remember looking at Natasha in my husband’s arms and thinking: her world has changed and she will never understand that.

Zack was the most upset. He said that he was terrified that we would retaliate (which, of course, we did). He didn’t want us to kill people. And he was worried it would make things worse.

Zack doesn’t remember saying this. But it has never stopped ringing in my ears.

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, I asked Michaela and Zack how it affected them and their view of the world. Neither of them really knew how to answer. We didn’t have a worldview before, they said. I asked them if it made them more scared; no, they said. You had the Cold War, Zack pointed out. We have 9/11.

This made me think about those Duck and Cover drills we used to do in elementary school (as if a little metal desk would protect us from a nuclear bomb). The drills didn’t make me afraid. It was just what we did. It was life. For our children, 9/11 is like that: it happened, life is as it is now. They don’t know anything different.

We are more cautious and nervous in our post-9/11 world. As a parent, I want to know where my kids are always, and I get anxious when they travel. But the cautiousness and nervousness come out in other ways, too. We want to keep our children and our country safe, and out of that comes a wishing that we could put up walls—around them, around our country, keeping out anything or anyone that is possibly dangerous. We have grown understandably suspicious. 9/11 felt like it came from nowhere, and it was absolutely devastating. There are so many stories and role models of heroism that happened or grew out of that day. But there has also been a growing feeling that what we don’t understand might hurt us.

This is where Zack’s words haunt me. Because I worry that it could make things worse, just like he said that day. I worry about how it will affect this generation to grow up believing that it’s us versus them, when “them” isn’t always clear. I worry that it could cause more hatred and misunderstanding and end up fueling conflicts. I worry that it could lead to more war and less peace.

So since 9/11, I’ve been very conscious of teaching my children tolerance. I taught them about Islam and about how it traces itself back to Abraham, the same person we trace our faith back to. We talk about racial profiling and about why it’s bad. We don’t tolerate blanket statements about any groups; each person is different, we say. We stress the importance of hearing both sides of a story.

I’ve also been very conscious of teaching my children to learn about the world. We read and listen to the news and talk about it; our house is full of books about everything. I want them to know what’s happening in other countries, to understand the forces and reasons and history behind what people do.

They don’t always like me for this. Elsa is thoroughly sick of me asking her to check her facts before she gets up on her soapbox and starts one of her rants. Michaela is sick of me trying to get her to read newspapers (she prefers People Magazine). And poor Liam, 6, is beyond sick of arguing with me about “bad guys.” He sees “bad guys” as easily identifiable groups of people that should be wiped out using any handy weapon. I keep saying that it doesn’t work that way. There are certainly people who do bad things, but they aren’t so easy to identify—and groups of people fight because they believe in something or because someone tells them to, not because they are bad. He rolls his eyes at me and moves his toys somewhere else.

Maybe I’m overdoing it and just confusing them (I am certainly confusing Liam). But I want my children to grow up being able to think outside the walls. Once an us versus them mentality settles in, it’s really hard to undo; it can become how you see things forever. As simple and almost comforting as that mentality is, the world is way more complicated than that—and the differences between us and them fall apart quickly when you look more closely.

Teaching tolerance and understanding won’t stop terrorism—that’s not just caused by hatred and misunderstanding but by greed and the hunger for power. Those are very strong forces that take more than tolerance and understanding to fight. But tolerance and understanding can lessen the power that terrorism has over us. And that, bit by bit, can make the world a safer and better place.