I joined the Brownie Scouts in first grade. It was 1972. I got my little uniform, my sash, took my pledge, and was awarded two badges in a special Brownie Scout ceremony. It was exciting to be part of a beehive of girls buzzing with activities. Autumn rolled around and with it came fundraising time. Yup, selling Girl Scout Cookies. The tradition then was to sell them door-to-door. Girls typically went alone or in teams of two or three girls – but then you had to compete for sales.
That’s the year it happened. My childhood safety bubble was forever burst. Two Girl Scouts, a couple of years older than I, had gone out selling cookies together. They disappeared. Their bodies were found some days later. They had been raped and murdered. I heard about it from some of the older girls at school. It was terrifying news. I left the Brownies and never rejoined. I don’t think I ever told my mom why, and she never asked or put two and two together.
My first exposure to death was even earlier. I was in kindergarten when my cousin Harriet, 16 years old, slipped down the icy front steps of her high school, hit the back of her head and slipped into a coma. She died several days later. Harriet and I were close. Though she was more than 10 years older than I, she was born with congenital dwarfism so was about my height. I thought she was the coolest girl – ever. The news of her accident was delivered matter-of-factly when I came in the door from school: “She slipped, fell, hit her head, went to sleep, and never woke up again.” That was all the explanation I received. Needless to say, going to sleep was scary for a while.
As a mother I can honestly say that I wanted my children to live with the belief – even the illusion – that the world is a safe place. That you can talk to strangers. That people are good, and kind. My kids were born at home, breastfed, and slept in a family bed. They were homeschooled. I did not want them to remain forever sheltered from knowing the realities of the world, but I wanted them to be free of those worries when they were young. Yes, I wanted, to some extent to shelter them. To protect their innocence.
Before they were even out of their elementary school ages, there was the Oklahoma City bombing. Then the massacre at Columbine. They heard about these from friends and on the radio. Then along came the child abductor in our very own sleepy little suburban neighborhood. One day a man in a white car pulled up to the school bus stop across the street from our house. He waited for the last kid to get off the bus, pulled up beside him, and offered him a video game if he’d get in the car. The ‘stranger danger’ talk had, thankfully, worked on this kid, and he ran screaming all the way home. The man was apprehended. Then, some years later, in our own small Connecticut town, Jennifer Petit and her two daughters were gruesomely murdered, in their home, leaving everyone in our town traumatized, especially the teenaged girls. Our daughters slept on our bedroom floor for weeks. Shortly after my oldest 2 kids got to college, I felt a sense of relief, an “Ahhh, they’ve made it safely,” moment. They were, in fact, each living on college campuses when the Virginia Tech massacre occurred and I realized that as a parent, the worrying never ends.
We all experience that singular moment when we realize we cannot protect our children from exposure to and experiencing the dangers and grief of the world. That the only certainty we have is that we are wearing our hearts outside our bodies, in the form of our kids.
We know that anything can happen. And, as we saw in Sandy Hook, it does. Violence, ugly, random, terrifying violence that is so tempting to call evil, shakes the world.
Our hearts ache for those whose suffering we can barely comprehend while simultaneously, inside we give thanks to whatever higher, inner, or outer power — or just damned luck — it was it that it wasn’t our child. All the while knowing, that it could have been. Because things like the Sandy Hook school massacre, or the Denver movie theater shooting, or 9-11 actually do happen.They happen and we have to find a way to restore balance in the universe for our children when they do. We have to find a way to reduce the inevitable anxiety of living in a world where such horrible things happen.
My husband and I tried to find a careful balance between giving our children a sense of safety and the belief that people are generally good, and enough information to keep them safe, without making them overly anxious. But there’s just no way to have “the safety talk” with kids without conveying some level of anxiety. Bad things do happen, and our kids need enough information to know how to avoid danger, and if faced with it, how to respond.
Like you, I have had to deeply consider how to talk with my children about violence, tragedy, fear, and death. It is always difficult. Too often, the conversation is forced upon us, and our kids, before any of us are ready, as happened with Sandy Hook. We all lose our innocence and a little more sense of safety in the world. Violence against any child is truly violence against all children.
So what do we do when tragedy strikes? When violence happens? Should our children be told? At what age? How? When? Where? By whom? As my oldest daughter said to me today, I think there is a balance that many parents are searching to find, how to be honest with their kids about what happened (in Sandy Hook) without making them paranoid and fearful from a young age. Yes, we are, my wise daughter. And we too, are trying not to be fearful and paranoid, so this makes it even tougher. We just want to hold you close, until you are in your 40s, keep you near and safe, fill you with the knowledge that you are loved, that life is good, that all good things will happen for you. We want to shelter you yet have you grow up wise, worldly, unsheltered, tolerant, compassionate. We want you to grow up sane. We want you to be able to grow up…
For better or worse, media is everywhere, so most likely, if there is something big and bad going on in the world, your kids are going to find out from someone, if not you. Even your little kids in kindergarten. Even if they go to Waldorf schools or small neighborhood homeschool groups. Here are suggestions I can share based on my experiences as a physician, midwife, and mother, for helping to keep our kids emotionally safe and sane, when sharing the news from what can seem like an insane world.
• If you have pre-school aged children, they are most likely to be spared from hearing the headlines, and to be too young to comprehend what’s going on. So unless pre-school aged kids bring something up to you, I wouldn’t bring bad news from the media up to them. If there is a threat, like someone unsafe in the neighborhood, it’s our job to watch them like a hawk, not scare them with warnings.
• By kindergarten kids are more likely to start to have a sense of it when things are going on. Kids hear the news through media, though other kids with older siblings, through kids who are on Facebook. From school friends, other relatives, through teachers. So the best thing to do is talk first – let them hear scary news from you. Say a little at first, casually introduce the subject to ascertain whether they’ve heard, and listen to what your child has to say. Sometimes the best way to broach a subject is simply to ask them what’s going on at school…what are the other kids talking about? If they bring something up to you, for example, “Mommy, a bad man hurt kids in another school,” clear your calendar for the next little while, be completely present, and gently inquire as to what they’ve heard and know. You can then use your judgment about what you need to say next.
• You may need to clear up misconceptions. Dispel any myths that you can. Kids play telephone with information and heck, even the New York Times doesn’t always get the details right. Perhaps, for example, your child heard that the teacher or principal hurt or shot children… this would then be an unnecessarily terrifying burden for your child to carry to school everyday! Try to learn as much detail about what they think they know as possible so you can clear up scary ideas that are simply inaccurate.
• By all means, minimize your own child’s sense of personal risk and danger by offering reassurances. To do this you will first have to calm your own fears. Yes, another horrible incident can happen. Your child does not need to think about this. Let your child know she is safe. The person who did the damage was caught, etc.
• Listen carefully and openly to your child’s fears. Her ideas may seem, well, childish or outlandish, but remember how vivid is a child’s imagination. Again, dispel myths and offer reassurances, don’t belittle. Listen and keep the communication channels open – and going both ways.
• Be careful to avoid saying things that have the potential to be scary to kids, especially when explaining death. While to adults, equating death with a peaceful sleep may seem comforting, to a child this is practically a sure recipe for insomnia. Similarly, saying someone went on a long trip and they are never coming home can leave a child with fears of abandonment. If you are faith-based, telling your child that God needs more angels can be terrifying, leaving your child wondering whether he or she is next. Be careful with euphemisms in general, as their interpretation is only limited by imagination – and kids’ imaginations can go wild.
• If a close relative dies of an illness, carefully discuss this with your child in an age appropriate way, in order to ascertain any fears of misconceptions about the illness that your child may be harboring; for example, if grandma had a lot of headaches and died of cancer, your child might be afraid he or she will also die of cancer if she/he has a headache. Headaches are common even with a fever and common cold yet this could be terrifying to your child!
• Let your child know that you will always be there for him, through thick and in, in his life and in his heart – that he can ALWAYS call on your strength, your bond; that you will always love him, no matter what!
• In the event of a public and violent tragedy, such as occurred in Sandy Hook this past week, there is often a welling of public emotion, some of it related to the incident, some of it people’s own stuff just coming up. Your child, too, may experience a wide and unexpected range of emotions, from sadness to fear to anger to confusion. He or she may also not be as affected by it as you, and that’s ok, too. Offer to talk and listen, and make the time to do so if your child takes you up on the offer.
• Create a family meeting over dinner or at a quiet time in the event of a tragedy, where you just open the floor to anyone who wants to talk about the events. You don’t even have to say much. Just make it feel safe and comfortable to talk. Have tea or hot cocoa, a quiet, uninterrupted environment, and just be there to “hold space” for your family members. Offer an inspirational, reassuring, or uplifting reading, poem or prayer to close the gathering.
• To overcome fear and helplessness, teach your child a technique that is spiritually comforting and consistent with your values and beliefs. For example, she can imagine herself surrounded in protective light, he can say a small affirmation, prayer or mantra that is calming, or can even visualize sending love, healing light, or kind thoughts to the victims as a way to feel engaged, involved, and less helpless, or she can put together a box or scrapbook or memorabilia of a loved one to hold onto and cherish the closeness of the person they will miss.
• Encourage open grieving and displays of emotions, even anger.
• Keep a close eye on your kids after a tragedy or loss; kids can internalize and externalize emotions in self-injurious and counterproductive ways. They may display dysfunction or maladjustment in their behavior. Should this occur, please seek professional support in your community.
• Try to remember, and remind your child, that there are so many more good and healthy people in the world than those who commit atrocities. If possible, try to extend compassion for all of those involved, and not lay blame or vilify. Intellectually, your child may not understand the complexities and nuances of issues such as mental health problems, gun control, and other topics that arise. This is a great opportunity to teach and share, and to raise a generation of thoughtful, compassionate, resilient young people. Remember, even in the most horrible tragedy, even the worst actor is someone’s child, parent, husband, or wife. We can never know the full truth of what drives people to horrible acts. We do not need to like anyone, we can even feel anger or hatred in the moment, but teach compassion and understanding as the overarching message.
• Finally, it’s ok not to have all the answers, and to let your child know this. You can always offer comfort and support, and you can explore ideas together, without having the answers to life’s mysteries and deepest questions.
• And let's remember, the world really is mostly a good place. Most people are good people, good neighbors.