Times Square. Central Park. The MET, MoMA, and Guggenheim. Manhattan certainly isn’t short on memorable landmarks and iconic attractions. Taking in a Broadway show might mean prepping the kids on theatre etiquette, but how does one prepare the family for a visit to the 9/11 Memorial? How young is too young? What do you tell them about that sunny day in September when the world came crashing down in a cloud of concrete dust and shattered aircraft?
Tough questions, all of them. Do I have the answers? No, not really. Only you can answer for your own family. What I can do is share what I know, and our family’s story in hopes that you’ll find some guidance in it. I will say that even if this post answers none but one question, it should be, “Go. When it’s right for you. Go.”
The first thing you should know is that visitors are admitted to the 9/11 Museum on a timed-entry. You may arrive at 10:00 a.m. and not be able to get a ticket that lets you in until two hours later. Plan for this. My advice is to stop at the memorial first, get your tickets to the museum, and then go explore the area. You’re within walking distance of Battery Park, always a great destination for families.
Once you enter the doors you’re shuttled through a TSA style entry process, complete with bag x-ray and metal detectors. There is a coat check area where you’re encouraged to leave bags and belongings that may get in the way of the crush of people joining you on the journey. Do this, you’ll be glad you did.
Visit the website before you go, they provide all sorts of resources and support for families visiting with children. There are also docents on-site who are happy to point you to resources housed at the memorial.
In the museum, there is one exhibit that clearly states it may not be appropriate for younger children. Here you’ll find first person audio recordings, see video (some graphic – these are tastefully hidden behind blinds), artifacts, and vignettes displaying everything from the dust covered clothing of a store front frozen in time on that day, to a recount of the first terrorist attempt on the building in 1993.
In that room is were our personal story begins.
My husband is a Native New Yorker, born and raised. His first real job out of college was working as an Import Specialist for the U.S. Customs Service at the World Trade Center. He was at his desk in 1993 when a bomb detonated in parking garage.
For him this place is so much more than “Ground Zero”, it represents a chapter in his life. One he talks about often, remembering with fondness some of characters he worked with, his city as it was before, and after. With every trip to Manhattan, when we’d pass by the cordoned off remains of the twin towers, the kids would ask him to tell the stories.
I thought these stories would be enough for them, they’d understand when we went, know why it was important to go. I was wrong. Even I was unprepared. Honestly, I don’t believe anyone could ever be prepared for this place.
As you descend into museum itself the air starts to shift. An escalator moves visitors downward, passing below the remnants of steel girders that once held up one of the towers. You’re deposited into a concourse where a timeline of the events of September 11th, 2001 begin to unfold in a multimedia presentation. Never have I been in a space with so many people and so little noise. It is both comforting and unnerving.
Here is where the questions from the kids started. We find out that the two youngest haven’t learned much in school about 9/11 and we’ve failed as parents in educating them from our experiences. Yet, I doubt that anything we could have told them, or showed them, would have had as much impact as standing next to a crushed fire engine.
The kids knew daddy had worked here, they even knew that his friend Bob – who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald – passed away here that day. They didn’t know so many other things -what Bob looked like, his picture is here on a wall. We just didn’t talk about 9/11 that much. I’m sure some part of me didn’t bring it up as much out of respect for what it meant to my husband on a personal level. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I’m the daughter of a fire chief and can’t help but cry thinking of all the children of firefighters who lost loved ones that day. No matter the reason, we just didn’t talk about it – as a family.
Coming to this place gave us reason – permission – to talk, to cry, to join with the kids in wondering why. Because honestly, who can answer that question, no matter how old we are?
I’ve always believed that travel has a power to educate in a way that no textbook or lecture ever could. Being in the moment, at the site where history occurred, seeing artifacts in person, hearing the story from those who lived it, that is how we learn. It is the gift that travel gives us, that this place gave to my children.
So if you ask me if you should take your kids to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, I’d have to say yes. Though I’d also tell you that you know your family best, share with them before you go. Find a way to have the hard conversations that will help you tell your own story. Tell the story. Our children must know, we must never forget.