What Do You Tell Your Kids?

by Abby on December 17, 2012

When I was growing up, there were certain things my mother refused to discuss with me. Family secrets, grim news, death… whenever something like that would come up, she would abruptly change the subject, saying, “You’re too young to worry about that. Maybe when you’re older.” It always pissed me off, especially as a teenager. I thought she was being evasive and patronizing. Surely I was mature enough to know about everything. I see now that she was only doing what mothers do: trying to protect her child.

And she was right. There are certain things you can’t forget once you know them, things you can’t un-see once you’ve seen them. Believe me, there are some things I would love to un-see, that messed me up for life, including a PETA poster when I was 5, several movies, and footage of 9/11.

I first learned of the school shooting in Connecticut midday on Friday when a friend called to ask if Newtown was near where I grew up. It’s about an hour and a half away from my hometown.

Since my kids were home, I couldn’t turn on the TV. I followed the news on Twitter, reading tweet after tweet about gun control laws and talking to kids about tragedy. People were horrified, outraged, devastated, prayerful. When it got to be too much, I put away the phone and we went to the playground.

It was a bright, chilly day. There weren’t many people at the park. I was pushing my 3yo on the swings when a young woman came up to me. She was a reporter for the local TV news station, looking to interview parents about how they were talking to their kids about the shooting. No way, I told her. I can’t. I was getting choked up just thinking about it, no way was I going to let my kids see that. Besides, they were way too young to know about it. I wouldn’t be saying anything to them.

If they hear about the shooting and want to talk about it, I will listen. I will reassure them. I will try to answer their questions. But until then, I will watch and wait and say nothing.

I know there are some parents who will disagree with me. Who think that we should not shelter our children or brush things under the rug. That they should hear bad news from us first. That’s fine. It’s your choice as a parent whether or not to talk to your kids about this. But it’s my choice not to. My 6yo regularly comes downstairs at night sobbing because he “can’t stop thinking about what happens after you die.” It’s awful trying to comfort him, and these are just hypothetical worries. He doesn’t need to know there are people out there who kill children on purpose.

When I was maybe 12 or 13, I witnessed a shooting at the local mall. It sounded like balloons popping. A jewelry store was robbed, a clerk shot in the leg. It happened quickly and had no lasting impact on me. In high school — a nice, suburban Catholic school — a boy brought a gun to school. I think it was more for shock value than intent to do harm, but he was expelled. I’m not sure exactly why I’m sharing these anecdotes, except to make the point that this is nothing new. And that most of these violent acts are completely, maddeningly random. You can’t lock your kids in the house forever and protect them from every evil in the world.

But you can still protect them. I chatted with the reporter at the park for several minutes off-camera. Please tell me you’re not interviewing children, I said. She assured me she wasn’t. She was young and clearly shaken by the news, as we all were. I told her I didn’t envy her job. Watching the coverage over and over in the newsroom. I can’t talk about it anymore, I said. I don’t want to think about it anymore.

“So that’s why you came here?” she asked, gesturing to the sunny playground where the kids ran around shrieking and playing.

Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s exactly why we came here today.

Happy kids, there is good in the world

There is so much good in the world.

LINK O’ THE DAY: Resources for talking to children about scary news are everywhere. I like this advice from PBS because it’s short and sweet and quotes Mr. Rogers.

MUST-READ O’ THE DAY: I have read a lot of commentary from a lot of different perspectives, but none that affected me as much as this: “Thinking the Unthinkable: In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie Mizzell December 17, 2012 at 7:03 am

My kids are the same age as yours, and we didn’t tell them. For the exact same reason… I’m not going to offer up the information that bad people kill children on purpose. I’m praying no other 6 year old comes to first grade talking about bad people who kill children. If they do, we will deal with it. Dillon sounds a lot like Riley… he’s already thinking about death. I can’t protect him, but I’m not going to purposely expose him to such horrors if I can help it.

The whole playground/reporter scene made me feel sick. She was doing her job, and trying to be sensitive to the situation. I’m just so glad I don’t do that job anymore. And I applaud how you handled it, and what you said to her.


Becca December 17, 2012 at 8:07 am

I did mention to my daughter that something had happened to some children (she’s 5). I didn’t mention what but I kept on grabbing them to pray over them and felt I needed to offer an explanation for why. She told me that it was ok, that we should pray that the children who had survived would have angels watching after them. I’m not sure where she got that information-I hadn’t mentioned it-but I’m choosing to believe that she simply knew what needed to be said and prayed. And death? She’s sad about me going first because I’m older, but I don’t think she’s ever thought of children dying, even after our conversation. It simply isn’t real to her.

And I haven’t followed the news at all. They’re doing their jobs, people do want to know, but I can’t handle it.


Ali December 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

My son is only 16 months old, so it’s a non-issue in our home. Thank goodness. But if he was the same age as your kids, I don’t think I could tell him either. It’s important to talk to kids about preventable things (e.g., going off with strangers) but can you really prepare them for … something like that? All it would do, I think, would brew unnecessary fear. I would, however, prepare myself in case he somehow found out about it elsewhere and had questions. I know I’ve got some awkward discussions ahead of me. Being an atheist, addressing death with children is a bit more complicated, I think.


Kathleen Basi December 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm

You have to do what’s right in your situation, and that means whether the kids are emotionally capable of handling it (which only you can know, no one else), and whether you can talk about it without transferring all your baggage onto them (which is, I think, the more important point for most parents). I heard about it and immediately went into internet withdrawal. I just don’t need to know the details. It’s horrible, and me getting cut to shreds about it isn’t going to make it any better, it’ll only hurt me. I can pray without knowing all the gory details.

My oldest watches the news, so I don’t know how long he’ll be sheltered from it. We’ve never held back on bad news, but then we’ve never had a school full of dead kids younger than him.

I will take issue with one thing, though. It’s a far cry from a kid showing a gun for shock value to a grown man going on a massacre. Things are worse than they were when were kids–just like the storms are worse now than they were when we were kids, and the drought last summer was worse than any drought in fifty years. I think we can’t stick our heads in the sands and pretend like the culture we live in doesn’t have an impact on this. Everyone has a different opinion on what the solution is, but we need to begin by acknowledging what is right in front of our faces. It is worse, and it’s not going to get any better unless we make a shift in SOMETHING to make it change. Maybe more than one somethings.


jetts31 December 17, 2012 at 11:23 pm

There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on the parents and the kids. I told both of my kids. My youngest didn’t really grasp it and my oldest brushed it off possibly out of fear or not wanting to know more. I kept the coverage off and didn’t allow them to watch but both were fine, went to school, no issues but that doesn’t mean what’s right for them is right for any other parent.
It is a situation that the best answer is whatever answer you come up with.


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