The age difference between my oldest child and youngest is 10 years. The daughter who was in third grade on September 11, 2001 started her first year of college last week, and the "baby" is now at the same school, sitting in the exact same elementary classroom as her big sister did on 9/11/01. I resisted writing about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 -- there's already much opinion criss-crossing the airwaves, and there have been so many other tragedies -- genocide in Rwanda, recovery in New Orleans and Haiti, famine in Somalia, tsunami aftermath in Asia, contempt for human rights in Iran -- that also deserve attention or outrage.
However, like many Americans, I can't get shake the memory of 9/11 -- not only do I remember it every day, twice a day, when the digital clock reads 9:11, but it's changed me. I changed careers because of 9/11. From a business consultant to a writer and educator focused on global citizenship. After 9/11 I set out to find tools that connected parenting and education to globalization, and discovered what was out there was geared to academic study not everyday life; and I found resources like "How to Talk to Your Children about Terrorism." But I didn't want to talk to them about terrorism. I wanted them to embrace the world, not fear it. To find joy in the diversity that cultures, ideas, spices, and languages bring. Not recoil from strange sounds a different looking person might utter, or the piquant scents from a classmate's lunchbox.
What I discovered turned out to be so simple, yet so profound the light bulb seems to go off multiple times a day around this idea: Love. With enduring guidance like: "Love is a light that never dwelleth in a heart possessed by fear."
This has many practical implications, starting with taking a stance on our family values. Treating world citizenship as a family value can help avoid the crisis mentality parents experienced after 9/11, when, on top of our own fears and insecurities, we suddenly needed to talk to our kids about the world. As with other difficult topics (like sexuality), one talk is not enough. Instead, we initiate a lifelong process of forming our deepest value systems: Parents offer guidance and a foundation; kids apply this knowledge along the way and incorporate it into their own actions and worldview. If the issues are ignored until a crisis comes along, then the moral compass likely will be confused. If the issues are addressed openly, today's children -- tomorrow's leaders -- will acquire a sense of confidence in approaching the difficult, often uncomfortable questions facing the world. If families adopt a proactive mindset, then we're not just reacting to world events that force a discussion, but we will open ourselves to connect genuinely with the people, circumstances, and challenges facing other human beings, and maybe even become part of the solutions.
Not all families will have a direct link to disparate places and cultures in the world, or can get their kids on a plane to learn about other places and peoples firsthand, but you can expose them to the myriad cultures around the world, starting with the resources in your own communities. As you open your minds and your lives to other ways of doing things, you'll probably get to know yourselves and where you came from better; and possibly deepen the bonds within your own families along the way. Raising children to have a global mind-set could be the biggest step you and your family take toward building a more peaceful world -- and it all starts at home, with love.
To break down this big idea, consider these doable steps:
- Start at the dinner table: Invite a family to dinner for the first time, especially if they come from a different culture or faith than you. Perhaps your children are friends, or you work at the same office, or you volunteered together at the library.
- Host for a longer period: Consider hosting an exchange student in your home. The connection you'll make to them and their culture will last throughout your lives. My family recently did this and it had a profound impact.
- Learn about Interfaith Initiatives: Across the U.S. thousands have been inspired to unite for 9/11 and beyond. See the listing of events here and get in touch with your local interfaith network to support understanding throughout the year.
- Support education programs that counteract extremist recruiting of the vulnerable. See programs like Beyond the 11th, founded by two women widowed on 9/11/01, and GlobalGiving, with a menu of pre-screened projects, to support courageous initiatives in Afghanistan and beyond.
- Help your local school use existing technology to learn about the world and humanize connections made online. Primary Source's teacher education, Global Nomads Group videoconferences across continents, World Savvy and iEarn's student engagement projects, and ePals pen pals and safe social networking all offer excellent starting points.
I'm glad the decade anniversary of 9/11 helps us remember; our efforts beyond will demonstrate how we really honor the memory.
(Parts of this essay were excerpted from Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Random House/Ballantine Books, 2009).)