What should we tell the children?
I can not fathom the grief and anguish that is awash over the Sandy Hook community right now. The loss of so many lives and so many children is simply and purely unimaginable.
My heart aches for the parents, the siblings, the relatives and friends of those who were so hideously gunned down. I hope that peace finds its way to all those who hid in the building terrified, hoping to escape, and struggling to keep each other safe. I feel such a heavy grief despite my only connections to the tragedy are that I too am a mother, a teacher, and a human being.
While the senseless shootings were happening, I was sitting in another classroom states away, singing "B-I-N-G-O" with another group of kindergarten children. I sat there in awe of how such a simple song could make children that age so deliriously happy. I walked through campus afterwards, smiling ear to ear. The purity and joy of a kindergartner is one of my favorite stages in all of development. It's so sickeningly unfair to think of what kindergarten- and school- was like today for children in that Connecticut school.
I cried for much of the afternoon, but when my children came home, I talked with them about it. I have worked in and around elementary schools long enough to know that the schoolyard, the school bus, and even the classrooms themselves can become petri dishes for children trying to process tragic events with each other. Did I want to talk with my 5, 6, and 9 year olds about murdered children? Absolutely not. But I want to be the one who breaks it gently to them, who answers their questions, who shares a moment of silence with them. The one who cries with them and let's them know even when they hear scary things like this, that they're ok.
Our conversation was straightforward, but I did warn them it would be sad. My first grader ran away right when I said I had something sad to tell them. He didn't even want to hear it, and that alone broke my heart. But we all sat together, and I told them what had happened. That children had been shot and killed and that many people were feeling very sad about it. I told them that they are safe, that their school is very safe, but that this was one of those things that never should happen, that almost never does happen, but today... it happened. We had talked before about children dying after a little girl had died of cancer... we drew upon that conversation today... how most of the time, children get to grow up and live to be very old, but sometimes, that just doesn't happen.
Going on Mr. Rogers' advice, I also told them about all the teachers in the building who kept their students safe and all the police who came to rescue the people in the building. How the lockdown drills the kids practiced in school had kept most of them safe. I told them how adults are really sad about it and they might be too, or they might not be, and either thing was ok.
I told them that they could talk with me or their dad or their teachers about it. I told them that we loved them, that we work really hard to keep them safe. And that although today someone made it so that adults couldn't keep children safe, adults normally can and do keep children safe.
We also talked about how sometimes people's brains are sick ... that's called mental illness, and that when it happens, brains can be very difficult to manage. I shared that most people who are mentally ill are as gentle as we are ... but they need help and medicine to feel better.
All of my kids talked about how they wished they had thrown a rock or a chair or a blanket or "blinding mist" to stop the shooter. I was glad their responses were ones of wanting power to ward it all off, instead of feeling as helpless about it as I did.
I kept it as matter of fact as possible, but they could definitely see I was sad, and I admitted as much. My first grader was sad while we talked about it, but seemed ok shortly afterwards. My fourth grader had some questions about the facts, and I answered what I could as honestly as I could. My kindergartner definitely couldn't grasp that anything like this could happen. It simply wasn't possible in her world. I envy her.
So while I know and respect that not everyone will choose to tell their children, I did. I know it's not the right thing because there is no right thing. This is all so very, very wrong. There is no guidebook for what parents should tell their children when a classroom full of kindergartners is gunned down in school. So I did what I hope we can always do as a family.... come together, care for each other, and talk about it.
Northwest Philly Parents is a partnership between Newsworks and Germantown Avenue Parents.