What I Said To My Children About Tragedy

Bubble Wrap Macro November 28, 20108

It is 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon and I am listening Mansions of The Lord and trying to come up with the right words to write.

The weight of what happened at Sandy Hook elementary is something that tugs at me and I am doing my best to figure out how to respond to it.

Some of my friends have said they aren’t going to talk about it with their children and have said they will turn off the television and the radio so that they aren’t exposed to the news.

I understand why they are doing it but that won’t work for me.

Bubble Wrapped Children

It doesn’t work because we can’t wrap our children in bubble wrap and shield them from the world. It won’t work because there is no uniform rule or method of parenting and experience has proven that some parents will share things with kids that I won’t.

Don’t misunderstand, that is not an indictment of parents. I don’t agree with how everyone parents but I am realistic so I knew that when I showed up at my third grader’s school for the afternoon pickup it was possible she might have heard something about the events of the day.

It was why I spent some time considering how to answer any questions she might have and figured out how I would approach things so that she would feel comfortable.

I wanted her to know we trust the school and believe it to be a safe place. Fortunately I didn’t have to have that conversation with her so it didn’t matter.

But I took a very different approach with my son.

Age Appropriate Meets Proactive Response

He is in middle school now and it is a different world from elementary. That is not supposed to be profound or insightful, just realistic.

Kids have internet access through their smartphones, iPads, Kindles and computers. I am not naive enough to believe they don’t use them during school or that they only visit “age appropriate” web sites.

Since we weren’t going to find our own Fortress of Solitude I was confident that there wasn’t going to be any way to keep him from hearing about what happened and decided that a proactive response was the best way to go.

It was a guarantee that I could introduce him to the topic in a manner that I thought was appropriate. That is the sterile way of saying I hoped to explain it in a way that didn’t scare him or give him nightmares.

But it was also recognition that he knows that bad things happen. We have had discussions about 9-11 and the assassination of Dr. King. He knows about the Holocaust and has had more than a couple of discussions about war.

Some of them were with me and some were in school. This wasn’t the first time he has been exposed and sadly it won’t be the last.

What I Said

I told him that there had been a shooting at a school in Connecticut. He asked me if people died and I said that some had. I told him that most people have been saved, but we didn’t get in to many details.

He doesn’t need to know all that.

I reminded him that during any sort of emergency the most important thing he can do is stay calm and make smart decisions. He nodded his head and for a long moment there was nothing but silence.

“Dad, I know you are serious.”

“I know you know. I am just proud of you and I want you to know that I am confident in your abilities.”

What I Didn’t Say

What I didn’t say was that life has shown that crazy things happen and that sometimes no matter what you do bad things happen. I didn’t tell how heartbreaking it was to see pictures and video of kids walking with police and faces of parents in agony.

What I didn’t talk about was how I heard parents at school talk about how they would kill those that hurt their children or about the others who said their lives would end if they lost their kids.

But in the recesses of my mind I heard all those things and watched a million memories parade on by.

I asked him if he was worried and he said no. When he asked me if I was worried I shook my head and said I trust the school.

What I Worry About Most

What I worry about most is not the crazy guy shooting up the school but the stupid crap we did. I worry about drunk drivers, falling out of trees, bike accidents and silly decisions to jump from the roof into a swimming pool.

That is not bravado speaking either, it is how I really feel.

But when things like this happen there is that little whisper that says sometimes things happen. It reminds me that no one is immune.

My heart breaks for the people who lost someone yesterday and I pray that they find a way through this all.

And in the silence of the night I hold my breath and hope that statistics are right and that my kids grow up to live healthy, full, rewarding and enriching lives.


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  1. Hajra December 17, 2012 at 3:44 am

    My six year old nephew lives in California and he asked my sister (his mom) whether someone would come to his school and shoot him down. The question terrified my sister. She says she doesn’t know what to say. And he wants to learn karate now, so that he can beat up the bad guys if they come to his school.

    • Jack December 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Hajra,

      Since I live in California I want to say it is the safest place in the world, but I can’t and that is part of why it is scary. I can’t say it because we have seen these incidents can happen anywhere.

      But at the same time we can’t live in fear because statistics show this is still the anomaly and not the norm. Doesn’t necessarily take away the sting, but…

  2. Julie Barrett December 16, 2012 at 4:57 am

    I am debating what if anything to say to my oldest today before he goes to school tomorrow. Frankly if I thought he wouldn’t hear about it, I’d say nothing. Mainly because he’s a little unusual in his thought process and can get high anxiety, and I see no reason to saddle him with it just in case it hits him that way. We’ve worked through so many issues and so far the one thing I haven’t had to worry about is unwillingness to go to school. It’s not easy, is it.

    • Jack December 17, 2012 at 12:52 am

      Hi Julie,

      I did it because I wanted to control the message and delivery. It is not a fool proof solution, but sometimes it helps to assuage their concern. I am sure whatever decision you made will be the right one.

  3. Jens P. Berget December 16, 2012 at 4:51 am

    This reminds me of the talk with my kids last year after the horrible 22. July shootings in Norway. It was impossible for my kids not to hear or see some of the things that had happened, and I had to talk to them about it. But, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t go into much details.

    • Jack December 17, 2012 at 12:50 am

      Hi Jens,

      I didn’t think about that but I can see how that would have been really hard for you too. It is an awful conversation to have. I don’t think little kids need many details, just reassurance that we are there for them.

  4. Betsy Cross December 16, 2012 at 3:59 am

    The morning of the tragedy Kenny was really upset with me and for the first time in forever he didn’t give me a hug and kiss goodbye when he left for the bus with his sister.
    The door closed and te spirit whispered, “Betsy, what if he didn’t come home today?” I cried. And a few hours later I had to wonder how many parents had those same thoughts.

    • Jack December 17, 2012 at 12:48 am

      Hi Betsy,

      I think most of us have those moments where the kids are angry when they leave and the concern about what happens if we don’t see them again.

      Happens on ordinary and bad days. It is just harder on the bad ones.

  5. Stan Faryna December 16, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I’m glad your family is safe and sound, Jack. My heart and prayers go out to all those who lost and now suffer such trials and horrors.

  6. Matches Malone December 15, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    I don’t know what my almost adult children know about Sandy Hook at this point. It’s not clear to me that we’ve taken either extreme with them during any previous tragedy wherein they may have heard about it before us.

    All I know is that most of the noise online is calling for solutions that wouldn’t have saved a single life that day, and I pray for our country daily.

    • Jack December 16, 2012 at 12:09 am

      Hey Matches,

      It is a rough, rough road we are walking down and easy to get caught in the bumps that we keep bouncing off of.

      Much of the online noise was senseless, but there were a few bright spots that really stuck out and that is what I am holding onto.

  7. Christie tate December 15, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    I feel comforted by this. I don’t know if I think my kids’ school is safe. I feel like nothing is safe, but if they asked me, I would want to say yes, because they deserve that from me. I worry all the time. And that was before this happened.

    • Jack December 16, 2012 at 12:07 am

      Hi Christie,

      When my wife became pregnant with my son I went through a brief period of time where I was worried about a million different things. Kid hadn’t been born, she was probably six or seven months pregnant and I found myself wondering how to protect the baby from everything.

      One of my friends said in passing that the population of the world wasn’t shrinking and the overwhelming concern went away.

      Statistically speaking horrible incidents like this one happen very rarely so what I worry about are things that happen ‘frequently.’ It is far more likely to see my kid do the same stupid things I did (jump off the roof into the pool, run across the street without looking) than to have something else happen.

      It doesn’t mean impossible, but to my way of thinking there is no sense in worrying about everything that could go wrong. Besides that who population isn’t shrinking thing and the knowledge that people grow up in far worse circumstances/situation than what my family has makes it easier to relax.

      It is not fool proof, but it helps.

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