Parenting

Did you tell your kids about the Newtown shooting?

Why one mom was forced to tell her young children about the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Photo: Sheryl Yazolino Griffin / iStockphoto

Like many of you, I’ve been feeling sick, tearful and reading everything I can get my hands on about Friday’s event in Newtown, Connecticut, trying to make sense of it all. I have my own opinions, as you probably do, too, on what needs to start happening to stop these horrid events from occurring. But I don’t wish to start a battle on laws, parenting styles or mental illness right now. I’d like to talk about how we move forward.

I wasn’t going to tell my kids, ages 7 and 5, about the shootings. Not for one second. I have a policy on honesty: If they ask me about something, I have to answer truthfully. It is my reaction to being dismissed or given false answers to big questions as a child. I don’t want my children feeling uncertain, I want them to feel secure and to trust me.

That being said, I don’t always tell them the whole truth. What I tell them is an age-appropriate version of the truth. (On the other hand, sometimes I tell them too much. While playing Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas album the other day, I pulled out my Billie Holiday LP and discussed why Billie’s voice is sadder than Ella’s.) Anyway, in this instance, I just didn’t feel like my kids needed to be thinking about some random gunman coming into their school and shooting them up. So I made a parenting decision.

Then I woke up Monday morning to the news. Toronto teachers would be wearing black arm bands as a symbol of grieving for the lost teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Um, what? After a quick taking of the temperature on Twitter, it hit me — my kids were going to find out whether I wanted them to or not. And as a wise friend was quick to point out, it’d be better if they heard it from me.

I let my kindergartener go down for breakfast and pulled my Grade 2 son aside. “Um, I need to tell you something. People at school might be talking today, about something bad that happened at a school in the US. I’m not ready to tell you what it is, but if you hear about it, I need you to come talk to me about it and ask me questions, OK?”

He nodded, “Did someone burn down a school or something?”

“No, it wasn’t anything like that, but some kids did get hurt. I want you to know you are safe, that the laws are very different in the US and that the chances of this happening in Canada are rare.” I so wanted to believe my own words, but I couldn’t say that with 100 percent certainty. I just needed him to not be afraid in his own school.

My son is slower than the average kid at processing stuff, so I got nothing out of him over dinner last night, and I knew this would be the case. It takes him a full sleep before he can meaningfully tell me anything about the events of the day before. So while I drove him and his sister to daycare this morning, I inquired again. “What were people talking about at school yesterday?”

7-year-old: “Oh, everyone was talking about that thing that happened in the US. (A pause while he worked out what to divulge.) Some bad guy broke into a school or something.”

Me: “Thanks for telling me, and thanks for phrasing that in a way that protected your sister.”

5-year-old: “Oh I heard about that from Peyton already!”

Me, thinking: “OMG! They are talking about this stuff in kindergarten?!!”

Me: “Yes, a man came into the school and hurt some children. We can talk more about this later. I’d like to know if you have questions. But for now, I want you to know you are safe.” I kept reiterating “safe,” maybe more to try to convince myself than to convince them.

7-year-old: “What happened to the bad guy?”

Me: “You don’t have to worry. He was a very troubled boy. And in the end, he did to himself what he did to those poor kids.”

7-year-old, eyes wide: “You mean…!!”

How much to tell them? How little? I changed his view of the world this morning, with that one sentence I thought was vague. He didn’t know anyone commits suicide.

Contrary to how this all sounds, I don’t want my children to grow up in a bubble. They know there are bad guys. They know people become alcoholics or drug addicts. They know I was bullied in Grade 7 and 8. They know that some kids are spanked and some kids are more than just spanked. But their image of those things in their mind’s eye, I have no control over that. I have no way of infiltrating the quiet moments where they don’t want to tell me something, when the hamster wheel is turning an idea over in their minds, how they process information or how the kids twist the news in the schoolyard.

But what I know is that I can’t keep secrets any more. I’m embarrassed at how naive I was to think I could keep this from my children. So I’ve asked my friend and Today’s Parent contributor, Alyson Schafer, if we could share her post on “How to talk to your children about school shootings” with our readers. If you’re wondering how best to approach the conversation on the shootings with your own children, please read these tips.

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In the meantime, some of my colleagues have put together a Facebook page to remind us to hug our kids (and heck, why not, each other too!). It features some beautiful quotes and sweet images. My colleague Tracy Chappell wrote this lovely piece on how the Newtown shootings made her appreciate all the little things about her children, those moments we tend to miss because we’re too busy.

Also, over one and a half million people have signed a digital condolence card for Sandy Hook’s families on Causes.com. If you’d like to do so as well, the Sandy Hook Elementary School National Sympathy Card can be found here.

And finally, here are some adorable Elmo videos I found on Upworthy.com, to help talk to your child about scary things they might hear on the news.

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