By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor
In the hours and days after the heartrending story of a mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school gripped the nation in a collective horror, it didn’t take long before the stories on “how to talk to your child” about the tragedy started breaking. Each article or news spot offered their own expert tips, common sense statistics, and reassuring psychological principals about how talking through these fears can help with anxiety and put things in perspective.
Except when it doesn’t. Except when talking to kids plants fresh seeds of anxiety and puts things out of perspective: teaching our kids, as surely as we teach them that books are good for the brain and candy leads to tooth decay, that the country they are being raised in can turn on a dime from one of the most affluent, powerful, and safety-conscious nations in the world to a place of harrowing, senseless madness, a place where scary nightmares are not confined to videos games or the silver screen, but can unfurl even in the first-grade class of a beloved elementary school.
Don’t get me wrong. There was good advice embedded in many of these articles: the idea that you might want to turn off the television to ration your child’s visual diet of weeping parents and tiny coffins. Or factual reminders that such violence is extremely rare and school is still the safest place for most children. Or the very reasonable (I might even venture staggeringly obvious) suggestion that parents stay calm and make sure their explanations are developmentally appropriate.
But the more of these stories I saw, the more irritated I became with the implicit assumption at the heart of so many of them. The assumption that the TV or Internet is on 24/7, streaming gruesome images into the living rooms of American families. That talking is always better than not talking – because we are a confessional therapeutic culture after all, and we want to share everything and God forbid we have an anxiety or fear we don’t let our kids know about.
I realized that had there not been this onslaught of media about talking to my children, I would never have considered doing it. After reading these stories, I was glad that I was well-informed in case one of my children asked me about the tragedy at Sandy Hook, but I decided I would go with my original instinct and avoid the topic all together.
Why? I don’t see how this is a lesson my daughters need to learn. In fact, I cannot help but see pushing the conversation as part of our cultural proclivity toward accepting an inacceptable level of violence, and our appetite for voyeurism and rubbernecking. It’s not that my kids are so young: one is almost 9 and the other almost 13. I just don’t see how the conversation which informed them of this unspeakable event could benefit them one iota.
Some articles suggested that you process the event before you talk about it. Let’s say I’m not close to “processing” something so senseless and so sad. No doubt, countless families who were directly touched by this tragedy will have to have many painful conversations with their children. Parents will need every tool in their arsenal to help children feel safe, return to school, and get their questions answered. But should this be a learning moment for all American families to teach empathy and resilience? I question that.
In the end, each family needs to find the right way to talk about this and each parent knows what’s best for their own child, but it’s hard because we aren’t our kids’ only source of information. This weekend I kept the radio off, and didn’t talk about the shootings in front of my girls (we don’t have a TV so that makes it easier). If they came to me, I was ready. But as their mother, I wasn’t going to initiate them into a reality that - I don't believe - they should ever get used to. Sigh, I have to acknowledge that I’m not the norm in this respect. I just received a letter from my middle school daughter’s principal about how the school discussed the events on Friday with the 5th through 8th grade, that “There were some tears and a lot of hugging.” It’s hard to express just how much I love my daughter’s school – but on this score, I wish they hadn’t made this their job.
What do you think? Did your child’s school discuss this issue with your kids? How did you talk (or not) with your children about the shooting? What do you think is best for your children – to know or not to know?
Update...a few minutes after posting this blog I walked into my home to meet my 3rd grader who shyly informed me that "they told us about a tragedy" and "they told us a lot of things" -- at which she began rattling off the details about the shooter's age and identity, who was killed and how. I dropped onto my sofa and gathered little sweety onto my lap. "Who's they?" I quizzed her, not quite believing my ears. "Who's us?"
According to my daughter (details are as yet unconfirmed), the principal visited every classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade to talk to them about the massacre. Kindergartners? Really? My daughter said they designated three rooms - the office and two classrooms - that kids could visit during recess in case they wanted to talk to an adult or to cry. She said 30 children went to the office. One doe-eyed girl in my daughter's class who often interrupts class to ask for a hug to sooth her anxiety hadn't been told by her mother either. My daughter said she began to cry immediately. Lord knows I have no idea what part of my daughters' understanding of the day is accurate. Needless to say I was flabberghasted that the school had attempted to explain this inexplicable act of violence to 225 young children without first informing their parents.
I've written an email sharing my concerns with the principal and I'm curious to hear her response. My heart goes out to her - it can't be an easy week to be in charge of an elementary school. Maybe there's some reasonable explanation or even an unreasonable one, an intense desire to do something - anything - in the face of such events. I don't think this is the right thing though. I've heard of many schools which chose not to talk about it with their younger students, counseled older kids not to talk to younger syblings and even counseled parents to refrain from talking to their younger children about the massacre. Clearly, even among educators there is no consensus out there on how, when, or what to share with young kids about violent events like those at Sandy Hook. But it's worth sorting out: will creating more teary-eyed stressed-out kids in the name of truth do more harm than good?Follow @Carol__Lloyd