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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Through the eyes of children
A minute's silence at a school in Lille, France
A minute's silence at a school in Lille, France
By the BBC's Peter Gould

The shocking pictures of two airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, and the dreadful aftermath, are now etched into our minds.


Were the men flying the planes goodies or baddies?

Boy aged four
Few news stories in our lifetime have been so dramatic, or so vividly illustrated on our television screens and in the pages of our newspapers.

But if we find this week's events in the United States deeply disturbing, what do our children make of it all? How do they make sense of these images?

Even parents who monitor their children's television viewing will have found it difficult to filter out the scenes from New York and Washington.

The pictures have been everywhere, running right through the day, at times when children can hardly fail to see them.

TV replays

And while we think they are only really interested in cartoons and pop stars, they take in far more than we realise.

"Were the men flying the planes goodies or baddies?" my four-year-old son inquired, after a teatime news programme showed yet another replay of the airliners hitting the twin towers.

Three days later he is still able to recall sequences from the news reports:

"A man was looking up and he saw a plane crashing into the building and it made it go on fire. The buildings were a hundred feet high. They fell down. People ran away from the dust so they wouldn't get hurt."

Of course, at his age reality and fantasy are intertwined. Thankfully he has little comprehension of the human consequences of what he saw before he was diverted away from the television set.

Playground talk

His eight-year-old sister understands rather more. She says her teachers have said nothing about this week's events. Perhaps they are hoping that parents will try to explain the inexplicable.

Yet it is clearly something that is being discussed in the playground.

"My friend says that whenever she hears a plane she gets scared," my daughter told me.

"But they were really important buildings, and I'm not worried about them smashing into my house."

People died jumping

So what did happen in New York? This is my daughter's view:

"It was a really big thing. The planes crashed into the towers and they fell over. I saw a picture in the newspaper showing a big mess.

"One of my friends kept on about how people had died jumping out of the windows. I think they didn't have much choice. It was either death in the smashed towers, or death by jumping.

"I heard there are some people in a far away country they suspect. I think they will be hiding. Only really bad people wouldn't care if they killed thousands of people.

"The people who did it don't deserve to be killed but they deserve to spend a lifetime in prison. The biggest mystery of all is why they did it.

'It makes me sad'

"I don't really want to read about it, because it makes me sad, but I think it's going to be on the television and radio and in the newspapers for at least a month."

So what should we say to our children? According to Patricia McCaffrey, an educational psychologist with Kent County Council, the first thing is to recognise their need to talk.

"Children have been really shocked by what has happened this week," she says.

"Images from films like Armageddon seemed unreal, but all of a sudden it has really happened, and that is alarming.

"It is such an extraordinary event that there are no frames of reference. It is helpful for children to talk it through with adults, to explore their fears and anxiety, and help them understand what happened."

Reassurance

Mrs McCaffrey thinks schools should help by trying to relate the attacks in the United States to ordinary events.

With older children, at secondary school, they can discuss the historical, religious, geographical and political issues.

With younger children, she says, the messages have to be put in language they can understand, for example using the analogy of a bully.

They should be reassured that such an event is very unusual, and the other countries of the world will not stand for it.

Very young children should be given a break from the extensive television coverage by allowing them to watch other things.

"But I would say to parents that children do not need to be wrapped in cotton wool," she says.

"They want their questions answered, and it is important to give them time to express their fears, so that we can reassure them."


Has your school made any special provision for handling pupils' questions about what happened?

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See also:

14 Sep 01 | Education
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14 Sep 01 | Education
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City schools re-open with counselling
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