This is how the world shatters the protective shield we wrap around our children:
A 9-year-old turns from the news to her father and asks, "Are we safe?"
A fourth-grader rushes into a classroom whose teacher is primed for a careful discussion and yells out, "The United States is under attack!"
A small girl calls her frequent-flying grandmother to announce, "Bad men blow up planes, and maybe we shouldn't take planes, because bad men are in charge of them."
News infiltrates our home like the ubiquitous dust of disaster over lower Manhattan. Just two years ago we were angrily forced to interpret Columbine to frightened grade-schoolers. Now we are expected to explain the crumbling world to children we would comfort.
How long has it been since parents had the luxury of filtering the world for their children? When I was small -- before JFK, before Martin Luther King, before TV -- trouble was screened. If cancer was only whispered about, the Holocaust was treated with silence. It was years before the children of my postwar era grappled with the evils that shook their parents' view of humanity.
Now adults who believe in being both honest and protective are caught in mid-gasp. The news hits the 5-year-old and the 50-year-old at the same raw moment. As David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, says: "We wouldn't give a second grader a quadratic equation to solve. But in an information-anywhere-anytime world, we have children exposed to quadratic equations of moral information."
All the V-chips in the world cannot screen out reality. It strikes with the unfathomable suddenness of bodies falling from towers that no longer scrape the sky. And we face the same questions a small witness to the disaster asked her father: "Why would they kill people? Why would they kill themselves?"
We struggle to be simultaneous interpreters, digesting information and translating it into the language a child can understand. We expect ourselves to answer the "whys" as if they were not our own quadratic equations. What are we to do with this?
In the emotional emergency kit put out in the aftermath of this attack, psychologists offered their basic tools. Make children feel safe (even if we do not). Tell them adults are in charge (even if we doubt it). Listen.
But the larger question is how we frame this world for our children. How do we reconstruct the debris of events into a moral house of right and wrong, good and bad, that they can grow up in? The stories we tell about human nature, about victims and heroes, justice and revenge, may determine not only what they believe about the world but who they become.
As New York City dug through the debris and parents made some attempts at normalcy, I asked a handful of psychologists the same question. What stories would they choose to tell and retell children from the growing Rolodex of dramatic narratives? About the New Yorkers who survived the long hike down the stairs? About airline passengers who apparently wrestled the terrorists? About good and bad people?
Without a second thought, David Walsh chose the firefighters. Tell children, he said, about "people who had a choice, who harnessed their own horses of fear to go into that inferno to help people."
James Garbarino of Cornell University, who has worked with children in war zones around the world, said "choose stories of caring-in-action." A rescued rescue worker whose first questions were about others. A man who carried a woman on crutches down dozens of floors.
Go to the helpers, they all agreed, for our heroes.
It is said that this is clash of two cultures. Elsewhere in this world, suicide killers become cultural heroes. Some are trained by political alchemists to see murder as heroism and make their parents proud by suicide.
But our children's heroes must be the helpers. We have lost the capacity to shield children from the world, but have lost none of the responsibility to reclaim that world. This is an atmosphere in which hate is easily confused with patriotism and revenge confused with justice. In the long run, what we tell children about humanity may decide whether we can defeat our enemies without becoming like them.
Go to the helpers. Stories that are both true and bearable offer comfort and confirmation to our children. And to ourselves.
Boston Globe Newspaper Co.