Suggestions for Parents on Talking with Children about the Newtown Killing

December 16, 2012

Jinnie Spiegler, a parent and education activist, offers suggestions for parents who want to talk with their children about what happened in Newtown.

Parents everywhere are struggling with what to say to their children about Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, that killed 26 people, including 20 children, all aged 6 or 7.  Should I tell my kids, or should I wait for them to ask?  What should I tell them?  Should I talk with them about school safety and the practical aspects of what to do if there's a shooter in their school?  How do I talk about the role mental illness?  Is gun violence and gun control off the table?
Many experts say that conversations about a difficult or sensitive topic like this one should start with the children and that you should wait for them to ask.  I did grapple with whether I should tell my 10-year-old daughter, or wait for her to ask - but not for long.  I decided to tell my daughter about it because I knew she would hear about it at school on Monday. I wanted to be sure to give her accurate information, a safe space to express her feelings, and as much time as she needed to ask all her questions, which were many and deep.  I also remembered what happened when Osama bin Laden was killed: We talked about the killing on the way to school that morning and, judging from the formal (in class) and informal (on the playground) conversations that happened that day and for many days afterwards, I was relieved to have made that decision.  Our conversation helped my daughter deal with the misperceptions she later heard when talking with others, including the glorification of violence and stereotypes about Muslims. I'm glad we'd talked about these issues beforehand.
Below are some suggestions for other parents who want to talk with their children about what happened in Newtown.
1. Be ready. Before having the conversation about Newtown, be sure you are ready as a parent to talk about it. Are you in a good state of mind to have this conversation?  As citizens, we are devastated by the violence and loss.  As parents, we are fearful and think immediately: "What if that happened in my child's school?"  Get in touch with your own feelings about this and know what you want to say so that you can be there for your child.  You don't want to communicate fear when you are having this discussion.
2. Provide information and reassurance.  Tell children the facts (and only you as a parent can determine how much to tell your child), be honest and clear, and respond to their questions.  Make sure you have enough time to answer all the questions they have. Some children will just listen and then be done.  Others will ask lots and lots of questions, digging deep for details.  They may ask whether something like this could happen at their school.  This is the time to reassure them with information about the security measures in their school, and to discuss the specifics if you can.  (In my daughter's school, the security procedures were reviewed in the wake of the tragedy, and then shared via email with the parent community.)  It's also important to put the risk in perspective: Attacks like these are extremely rare.
3. Be careful when describing the perpetrator.  It's very likely your child will ask, "Why did he do it?"  I've heard some parents say that "a crazy person shot all those kids."  Be careful with this language.  One in four adults experience some kind of mental health problem in a year and millions of Americans have severe mental illness. Many of us have family members, friends, colleagues or acquaintances afflicted by mental illness. We don't want to send the message that mental illness causes violent acts.  On the other hand, mental illness is probably a factor in what happened, and depending on the age of your child, you may want to address this with her or him.  Be careful to be clear that a very small percentage of mentally ill people would do such a horrific act; they shouldn't think that Uncle Charlie or Mom's co-worker is going to get assault weapons and gun down small children.
4. Talk about the political context - including, in this case, guns.  I decided to tell my daughter about my strong personal belief that guns, especially semi-automatic weapons such as the ones used in this shooting, should not only be regulated but banned.  Children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries.  Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his Sunday column Do We Have the Courage To Stop This? that "the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has five pages of regulations about ladders, while federal authorities shrug at serious curbs on firearms. Ladders kill around 300 Americans a year, and guns 30,000."  Children are fascinated with guns. They're a big part of American culture and we see them glorified on TV and elsewhere. In my opinion, we need to help our children deconstruct the gun mystique, to help them understand more about where guns come from, how people get them, and the regulations (or lack of them) that can lead to this type of mass violence.
5. Emphasize the helpers. It's critical to point out to children that many people are acting as helpers in this situation: people from all over the world are concerned about and caring for the community and the children.  As Mister Rogers said,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

If appropriate, ask your child if there's anything they want to do to help, such as sending a card to the school or families who lost loved ones.
This is a painful time, but a teachable moment for all of our children.
Jinnie Spiegler is a parent, an education activist, and long-time Morningside Center colleague.