Teaching Children About American Tragedies

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At the Sixth Floor Museum

How do we teach our children about tragedies in American history, and when do we do so? Do we actually have a choice in the matter these days given that mass shootings, for example, are a part of our news and something a child might overhear when flipping through TV channels? How did our society get to this point?

I ask myself these questions as a parent, but I don’t think the answers are clear-cut. When and how we bring the subjects up to our children largely depends on their maturity to comprehend such topics. It also depends on the questions they bring to us. As parents, we have a duty to instill moral character in our children through the lessons of history while teaching kids lessons about personal safety in this ever-changing world. 

The sad truth is that kids in school today don’t remember a time when there weren’t lockdown safety drills. I fear today’s youth are growing up at a time of such violence and turmoil that they might become numb to it. Until I was in fifth grade, I didn’t think much of what was going on in the world around me. That all changed on April 19, 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing. A new type of fear struck our state and country. My family was glued to the television in shock and, for the first time, I cared about the news. Four years later, almost to the date, the Columbine school shooting took place. Then, just a few years after that, the unimaginable happened with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In roughly 6 years and 5 months, shocking events lead to a new set of fears for my generation.

Even before watching history unfold on the television after the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the first stories I remember hearing recounted in similar detail by family members was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Everyone seemed to know exactly where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt on that day and the days that followed. Some members of my family were watching the broadcast of JFK’s motorcade going through downtown Dallas when it happened. 

Reading about shocking historic events from a book and living it on the day-of are entirely different. Parents and caregivers can help fill in gaps for children so they can understand the events that shaped history. I was probably 8 when my family took me to visit The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas for the first time. The museum exists in the book depository where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot President Kennedy. I say supposedly because there are conspiracy theories. I understood as best as a young kid could that something about America changed the day President Kennedy was shot, but I didn’t understand fully until that day at the museum. That day history came to life for me, and I also felt that I understood my parents’ and grandparents’ generation better.

As was the case on November 22, 1963, Americans were robbed of stability and security. With each major tragedy it happens again and again. What has changed since my childhood seems to be the frequency of events that shake the foundation of our society. Whether it involves the murder of one person or many people, something needs to change. I want my kids to understand and care about history so they can help create a brighter future. If history exists for one reason, it is to be learned from – so that we may analyze problems and not repeat them.

Earlier this year, I realized how removed my teenage stepson, Kieren, is from the events that rocked my generation, not to mention those of my parents and grandparents. My husband and I talked about ways we could bring US history to life for him, starting with major events of the past century. We planned Kieren’s first visit to Greenwood Rising so that it would coincide with him learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre during his Oklahoma history course. It gave Kieren a new understanding of the impact of Black Wall Street and Tulsa’s place in history. Greenwood Rising opened his eyes to mistakes that should never be repeated. 

Though I wish that we had the opportunity to visit New York City this fall, school schedules are too busy. I would like for both children to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum because it is a profoundly moving experience. When we first visited, Kieren was not with us, and Isabelle was just a busy two-year-old with no concept of where we were. Perhaps next year things will align for us to go.

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What did work out for Kieren a few weeks ago was his first visit to the Sixth Floor Museum. In the lead-up to Kieren’s museum visit we watched the 1991 classic JFK, so that he could understand all the details and varying viewpoints involving the assassination. It set things in context for the museum, which outlines JFK’s life, political career, and circumstances surrounding his death. Visitors can even stand on the grassy knoll nearby where bystanders also reported hearing shots. If you have a tween or teen, I highly suggest taking them. This year marks 60 years since JFK’s death.

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History has to be kept alive through more than just textbooks or kids will tune out, even if unintentionally. Oral histories, books, movies, and museum visits can make a big impression. We cannot expect kids to truly grasp the despair or triumph of historic moments we’ve lived through if they weren’t even born yet. Wherever you can get to, be it your local library or a museum, teach kids about the events in history you have been around to witness when they are mature enough. Even if your child isn’t a big fan of history as a school subject, talking with them might change their mind. 

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are excellent resources to consult before talking to children about tragedies in an age-appropriate way.

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Categories: Exploration and Education