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December 17, 2012

Why I didn't talk to my children about Sandy Hook -- and why my decision didn't matter.

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?


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I agree. I have a daughter in kindergarten and while I was stricken with the senseless violence and the horror, I didn't feel the need to share the information with her. I did ask if anyone had mentioned being "safe" at school and she gave me the typical 5-year-old look that says "Mom, do you even know what you're talking about?" and shrugged and said, "Nah". That was the end of the discussion. Our children have so very little time to be young. To believe that the world is essentially a good place, before they are struck with the harsh realities we have come to expect. I don't know if I want to encourage her to understand that this sort of thing not only happens, but could happen to her. I don't want to encourage the idea that violence is a part of life. The best I can do is help her understand what should be; goodness, kindness, love and caring. I made a bigger deal of how important it is to be patient and good in the hopes that she understands the difference between right and wrong in herself and others. I pray that tragedies like these cease as awareness grows; that people like these killers are recognized for their troubles long before they have the chance to reek this kind of terror. My heart goes out to the families of those poor children.

I, too, didn't want to tell my 5 yo 1st grader and preK student about it. I could barely take watching the news myself.

Well, the kids spent 1 NIGHT and half a day at "Granny's" house and came home talking all about "Sandy Hook Elementary School". And on top of that, on Monday, the teachers talked to the students about it and my children came home telling me what they had learned.

I can appreciate that schools want to be proactive about dealing with this. But IN MY HOUSE, I didn't feel the need to expose them to this information. But, others have already done the job for me.

It's no wonder that my normally self-assured and independent 1st grader was crying her heart out yesterday morning saying, "Mommy, I just want you. I want you" over and over again. She has NEVER ACTED LIKE THIS BEFORE. Not even on the 1st day of Kindergarten.

Do I think that hearing this story caused her breakdown? Absolutely.

Do I appreciate other people exposing my child to this when I expressly didn't want to? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

I agree wholeheartedly. I have 3 children, a 15-year-old and 2 in college, so not young, but even I did not feel the need to talk to them about it unless they brought it up first. It wasn't that I didn't think they could handle it. But maybe it was. I like to think I know my children's personalities pretty well and the road they took, as far as exposing themselves to the news or talking about the tragedy, is pretty much the way I thought it would play out. I did ask them to watch President Obama's televised address, which we all did as a family. Other than that, 2 out of my 3 children chose not to watch TV or look at the front page of the paper or even talk about it, I assume because it was too painful for them. The third also decided to avoid the media but finally gave in and had a long, hard cry. With me. Hugging her and crying too. Even though she's 19 years old. I think everybody has their own way of dealing with such an awful, terrible tragedy. It shocked their system, my system, my husband's. But talking about such shocking events isn't always everybody's way of dealing with them immediately following. Unfortunately, it's becoming all too common a news story. And maybe the 2 who didn't want to talk about it will want to eventually, when it's not as raw. But if a 15 year old and a 21 year old want to avoid watching the news or reading the newspaper or talking about Sandy Hook because it's just too painful, I can only be there for them when and if they change their mind. I'm leaving their feelings up to them.

Very interesting post! A small discussion started in our house only because my son heard about it at school. Thou we have TV's in our house, we spend most of our watching time on netflix. My wife and I decided to continue to build better relationships with our kids so, that when the time come to have these difficult discussion, they will feel some level of comfort and support.

Our school has not addressed the student body. They instructed teachers in K-2 to kybosh conversations and offer to go talk to the admin if they had questions. In 5th grade the teacher simply said "We will not discuss the events in CT in class as some people do not know about it. If you have questions feel free to talk with the school psych,admin about them. Their door is open." And that was it. In our home we did not watch 24/7 coverage. If the news was on we muted/paused or turned off the TV. I've also never been one to buy the violent video games. I turned off the radio in the car. I offered an ear to listen about it if they want. Neither of my children expressed fear of going to school. Both expressed sadness that someone bad did something terrible at a school but that was the extent.

You can be sure that your children are hearing about it from others, unless you have them sequestered (are you keeping them home from school, not letting them play in the neighborhood, not taking them shopping?). I chose to be the one to share the event with my son. I agree that we don't need to 'process' the events as we weren't there, but I am surprised that so many posting parents think that, for whatever reason (they don't watch a lot of TV, etc) their children won't hear about it. It is valuable to be the trusted adult with them when they first hear about it. You really might be surprised by the questions/comments they have and you can address those.

My children's schools,a K-5 which is co-located with it's sister school a 6-12 school, sent us an email on Friday relaying that they did have a crisis management plan in place, but couldn't divulge specifics (reasonable) and that they would NOT be discussing the incident at school, but they did share relevant resources to assist parents to make decisions about how much and what to discuss with their children at home. Since my older two are in H.S., and use social media, I shared what had happened with each separately and then listened as they processed the information. My 8 yo still knows nothing of the events. We are avid netflix users, and she isn't on the internet yet.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories. Really the gap between what schools are doing and what parents want can be huge. I heard about a 1st grade teacher who told her students and then conducted safety drills with them throughout the day. Another kindergarten teacher didn't tell the students about the shooting but had them create condolence letters for the families which made the kids incredibly confused so they could go home and ask their parents what was the issue!

I guess I worry that adults may need to process this more than children but they don't see that children have DIFFERENT needs than their own. I commend the schools that made a plan with children in mind and talked to their parents in advanced. I got a very nice letter from my daughter's principal explaining how much thought that went into their decisions and how they took different approaches with different grades. The upshot for me was that they didn't inform the parents and it makes no sense to get kindergartners sending "good thoughts" to people in CT because their are "sad" and then not expect those kindergartners to be incredibly curious. Oy.

Agreed. Kindegarteners don't need to know. It won't help them, and if they don't live in the immediate vicinity of Newtown, then it should have been easy enough to shelter them from the news. The school had no business sharing this with your kids!

My seventh graders mentioned it only briefly Monday, with many of them lamenting they had forgotten to wear blue and yellow. Then suddenly yesterday, they were bursting with questions. I let them answer each other's questions where they could, monitoring for truth vs. rumour, and contributed where needed. Their questions drove the discussion. I am sure it was a lot for some to handle, easier for others. But letting their needs drive the discussion seemed the way to go.

One reason this issue is so complicated (and so vexing) is that it highlights the very different vantage point that parents and schools view children. For the schools that made a forum for lots of information sharing and meaningful rituals that may or may not be age appropriate, the focus was on damage control of information. You don't want "crazy information flying around the playground" one parent I know explained their principal's explanation told me - the idea that the playground becomes a site of uncontrolled information feels dangerous. Unfortunately, the truth in this case was about as crazy as it gets so just introducing it to kids creates the possibility that some kids are just going to run with it and get other kids freaked out. Parents know they can't control everything their children will hear but for some it's a seems less emotionally harmful to respond to their needs and questions when and if they learn about it, than create an event around it.

The other thing my husband said which I haven't heard anybody talk about is the fact that horrible things happen to people and indeed children everyday and if we wanted to really apprise our kids of the reality of the world there would be no end to such talks. By focussing on this tragedy with kids above others it can't help but send a message that all American school kids are in danger -- not that they are safe.

I did not mention it to my kids. My husband was watching football and right after the game it went to 60 Minutes. Top story - the shooting. Then, on Monday, the school informed the kids of the violence and made them do a Code Blue drill - a lockdown practice. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! My second grader had to sit in a closet for 15 mins during the drill and after the principle's morning announcements and learning what happened and why they are doing the drill.

I agree! For what reason would our innocent children need to learn this horrific information? We as adults can't even process it. Why would we put this information into their hearts and heads to try and process? I have a first grader and I knew immediately that I would not be telling him and I would be outraged if his school did without informing me.

Well...unfortunately...this is the sad world we are living in...and providing valuable information on how and what to do if ever this situation arises in our chidrens school...just might save their life! Two of the surviving students...played dead and their parents have them today. Of course...age appropriate explanations and information is a necessity but ignoring and evading reality is not always the way to handle a tragedy where vital information just might save their life. Im sure no parent in Sandy Hook thought this could ever happen in their childs school...but as we have seen time and time again...sadly...it is happening...We teach our youngest children to stay away from strangers..this is another tool we have to add to their arsemal of ways to be safe when we as parents cant be by their sides to protect them...when they ask us if there are monsters out there..we have to say...yes!!! My child is ten and I wanted him to have the knowledge of what to do to protect himself when and if others cant...to be a survivor if at all possible...May this never happen again and may the children never have to witness the horrors of such monsters that do such evil deeds in our society!! Prayers to the families and the community of Sandy Hook!! GOD BLESS!!

There are some things that we just have to keep.Some things that need to discuss to children.Indeed, these things won't matter to children.

When I was little, I remember hearing about not getting brain-washed like Patty Hearst. Then, I would ask my mother about what she did and why. I also remember seeing a lot of Kennedy's assassination, and the photo of his son standing and watching a procession go by. It turns out the latter never happened in my lifetime, but it was on the news and TV a lot of times.

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