brave Parenting conversations: school shootings
My son is 12 today, he was 8 when Parkland happened, he was a toddler at the time of Sandy Hook. He has been doing lockdown drills since since beginning kindergarten, this is the only America my son has ever known. I did not grow up with this fear but this is the only America I have parented in.
What qualifications do I have to give you advice? None. Except that its an ongoing conversation and process that I have learned from. I also realize that solutions will come from his generation, not mine.
Being white/cis/hetero myself, I am aware that I don't feel Buffalo, Uvalde, Atlanta or Orlando the same way I would be if I was Black/Hispanic/Asian/queer. I need to acknowledge that. I do not know what it is to walk through the world with a target on my back because of the color of my skin or my lifestyle and I cannot speak to that. There's going to be a lot more questions to field within some families to field than I have had to answer. We need to work on empathy as a nation and the root causes of both radicalization and violent rampage every bit as much as we need to improve gun regulation and mental health access.
Your child is likely to hear about school shootings somewhere. Even if they are young, older siblings and their friends with phones might be sharing info within earshot. Teachers are vague when they talk about the need for lockdown drills but even young children sense the fear and anxiety adults carry.
Here's what I have learned while raising a child in an era where mass shootings are common.
1.) Turn off the news when they are home following an event. Its more information than they need to see or know.
2.) Know your child. Some kids suffer anxiety and sheltering them might be the right thing to do. Remember that fear and emotion are natural responses to tragedies so that's OK. You are not the cause of the trauma by bringing it up, you are a guide. This is NOT and will NEVER be normal.
2.) Be direct and don't say too much, let them lead with questions. Our son is 12 so we can say, "There was a school shooting in Texas yesterday and kids may be talking about it at school. You may see security guards at school today or there might be lockdown drills as a precaution. Is there anything you want to know?" Parkland sounded more like, "A man tried to hurt children at a high school in Florida today. Do you know anything about that?"
3.) Don't lie. Its tempting to tell them this couldn't happen here or comforting things like "Don't worry, you are safe." It is very important for children to feel safe but do not lie to them. See #4
4.). Share all the ways that adults are working to fix the problem and, if there are things they can do to keep themselves more safe, share that too. Yesterday I told my son that I reached out to law makers and asked them to vote on commonsense gun laws that can reduce mass shootings. I remind him that lockdown drills provide practice and I remind him never to prop open a school door, let adults control who enters with the call box. We talk about metal detectors as a tool to help make sure dangerous things can't come into public places. He asked me if someone might just walk up to the trailers (where his class is) and start shooting. I had to tell him that while I don't think that is likely, it's possible. It really sucked to say that and I did not dwell on the fears I've had about that for a long time. But he's not stupid and lying doesn't help.
5.) Don't talk about "evil" or "monsters". Your child is likely to ask why a person would want to hurt children. As an adult, I recognize that the word "evil" makes the individual into an outlier while exonerating us from exploring how our society and culture might be contributing to frequency. For children, evil and monsters are just plain scary. Its OK to admit that we don't know why, most of the time we don't. It is important for kids to know that not all adults are safe. It is important not to stigmatize mental health problems. We can help them discern these things without using scary or dehumanizing labels.
6.) Encourage your child to express grief and sadness by establishing connection. Sometimes they need a firm hug but sometimes they want to do more. Suggest writing a note or drawing a picture of peace for a grieving family. Ask them if they can think of someone in their own class who might be lonely and see if they want to ask them over for to hang out. If a classmate is being picked on at school, talk about ways they can step up to help. Remind your kids that people who grow up feeling loved, accepted and connected with others are less likely to have the hopelessness and rage that makes them dangerous.
7.) Let them participate in protest. If the school is organizing a walk out or protest and your child expresses interest in participating, let them. Don't worry about disciplinary action or conformity here. Taking part in shared grief, anger and desire for change can help them feel they have some control while letting them use their voice and have a real stake in the future of their country.
7.) Remind your child to ask for adult help if they become aware that a classmate might be dangerous to themselves or others. This is especially important with older children on social media who may see a threatening post. Some kids need more help than a peer or friend can give and an adult needs to get involved. Until there are red flag laws we must be the red flags. (Talk about what red flag laws are.)
8.) Don't make it a one-off convo, tell them you are feeling a lot of things too and they can always ask follow up questions later as they come up with them. Loop back, don't force what they are not ready to hear, follow up, bring it up more than once. Normalize talking about hard or frightening things whenever they feel the need to talk. Normalize not knowing everything, because we don't. Certainty is not part of this, we shouldn't pretend it is.
9.) Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. How can anyone really say the right thing here? If you feel like you said something wrong or could express something better, just say, "I'd like to circle back to...." and start over. You are human and its always good to model being human.
If reading this enrages you because no parent should have to explain a mass shooting of 9 year olds to their 9 year old... good! I hope you are fed up. I hope you will reach out to your legislators and ask for the commonsense gun laws we frankly should have had 20+ years ago. . If you are new to this, thats OK - find your representatives by putting your address in here. Get involved and be sure to show your kids how you acted.
And remember - there are kids who have no choice but to see the worst of humanity: kids who have been through or are currently going through a war, kids who have been the victims of violent crime, survivors from mass shootings who might be crippled or have PTSD for life. If all I have to do is have hard conversations with my son, I am the lucky one.
Until one day I'm not. Its going to take every single one of us taking a stand on this while reshaping our culture towards acceptance and kindness.
For reference, #1 and #4 are shared by Commonsense Media, I did give them my own spin. Photo by Sam Worthington.