One of the hardest things we face as parents is teaching our kids about the evil that exists in our world. We would all like to shield our kids and protect their innocence for as long as possible, but we don’t live in a bubble and real life doesn’t always give you that opportunity. On 9/11, New York parents feel that more acutely than most days, particularly for those of us who were in the city that day.

A lot of people have asked me what I have told my children about 9/11 and when I decided to tell them. My answer is different for both kids.

Mazzy (my 8yo) knows about 9/11 because a few years ago on the anniversary (I think when she was six), she walked into our bedroom as we were turning on the television and saw a clip of the planes flying into the Twin Towers. Mike quickly changed the channel but it was too late.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It was a plane flying into a building,” we said matter of factly, hoping that would be the end of it.

But the impression of the image was too great and that was not the end of it. “Did that really happen?” she wanted to know.

Of course, I did not want to have this conversation, but I also believe these moments determine how and when your kid will come to you in the future. I think it’s very valuable for parents to show their kids that they will give truthful answers, even if they are ugly answers. And so we told her, “Yes. It really happened. Two planes flew into two buildings, they were called the Twin Towers, and knocked them down.”

“Did people die?” was her next question.

“Yes, some people died. But there were a lot of people were able to make it out alive too.”

We told her it happened before she was born. Then we pointed to the place in the skyline where the buildings used to be (you can see the downtown skyline right outside our bedroom window) and told her that they built the Freedom Tower in its place.

“Will it ever happen again?”

We told her “no,” which might be a lie but it might not be. We told her that they changed a lot of things to make flying safer so that it would never happen again, which is true. We told her she was safe. Mazzy accepted all of that and didn’t have any other questions.

That night, as we do every 9/11, we stood on our balcony and watched the blue memorial floodlights light up the sky. “Those are in memory of all the people who died that day,” we said. Mazzy nodded.

Last year, when she was seven, Mazzy asked if the people flew the planes into the buildings on purpose. That was a much harder question to answer, but again, we tried to be as truthful as possible. We said “yes, they were bad people who also died that day.” We assured her that even though there are some bad people in this world, there are far more good people and she is safe. She left it at that.

Earlier this year, we took Mazzy and Harlow to the top of One World Trade. The experience of One World Trade is incredibly celebratory and they do not touch on 9/11 at all when you go up to the Observatory.

As a result, it was much more emotional for me than it was for the kids, and we chose not to bring it up. I didn’t think either of them were ready for the Memorial Museum yet and we left that for another time. I think when I am ready, I will take Mazzy on her own. I might chose to go by myself first, so that I am better prepared.

This year, it was Rosh Hashanah on 9/11 so the girls had off from school. Mazzy is home sick today with a virus, so she will probably not go back to school until at least the end of the week. I’ve heard that many teachers start talking about 9/11 in the fourth grade, so I’m not sure what she will miss in her class while she is out. We are also not currently living in our apartment, so we do not have the same view of the lights at night. I decided to make time to talk with Mazzy about 9/11 anyway, so she would know that we honor this day every year. I told her what the date was and asked if she remembered what happened that day. She said, “Yes. The planes flew into the Twin Towers.” Then I told her a little bit about my experience that day — about how I looked for Poppy and when I found him, I felt safe. I told her about family and friends coming together to cheer the firefighters and emergency workers who were driving down the Westside Highway to Ground Zero and realizing how lucky we are to live in such a special place like NYC. I told her she was lucky to grow up here.

This year, Harlow (my 5yo) got her first introduction to 9/11 when I took her to see the new mural by Kobra Street Art on 49th St and 3rd Ave, pictured above. But I didn’t tell her about the planes yet. Since Harlow hadn’t accidentally seen anything on TV like Mazzy, I had the opportunity to better control what information she was given. I wanted her exposure to 9/11 to be in the reverse.

I told Harlow that today is a day about honoring our heroes and all the people they tried to save. I told her that on this day, seventeen years ago, firefighters and EMTs and policemen and women put their lives on the line to help others. I told her that today was a day that celebrated the strength of NYC and how during a really tough time, we all came together as a caring community.

I’m not sure how much she internalized from what I told her, but she did understand something, because after staring up at the mural for a bit, she said, “There should be a heart on top.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he’s a hero and everyone loves heroes.”

The tougher lessons are yet to come.

How old were your kids when you told them about 9/11? What did you say?