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Talking to Children About Violent News Stories

Jan12

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Hi this is [---] Elementary school. I am calling to inform you that your child threatened to bring a gun to school today.

What?

Your child said he was going to bring a gun to school.

I heard you, I am just shocked. That doesn’t sound like something he would say. And certainly not something he would do.

We don’t even own any real guns. I am confused.  This is going in his permanent file.  My heart is heavy.

*****

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I was at a government office with this same son. He was almost 1 yr old. There was security in place, where once there had been none. I had to put my son down on the floor, stand him up on his chubby, unsteady legs so he could be frisked and have the wand scanned over his body.

Step back, ma’am. We have to check you separately.

I can still vividly recall him standing there, several feet away from me. His legs wide apart for balance, wearing a tiny plaid pea coat and soft soled “sneakers.” He held his bottle up to his mouth with one hand. He was a baby. Could this really be happening?

Tears had welled up in my eyes while I watched.

No need to be upset, ma’am. Your baby is not being harmed in any way.

That’s just it, he was a baby.  The tears were because this was the world my son was going to grow up in. A world where this would be the new normal. A world of distrust. A world where everyone and everything was suspect.

A world where a seven year old child would say to his father who is heading to the airport on a business trip, Well, you mean IF you come home.

*****
I have been asked several times over the past week how I was talking to my young children about the shootings in Arizona. And my answer is the same as it is with any random violent act which occurs, I’m not. I never turn on the news when my children are home. I don’t think that that they need those words and images seared into their brains.

Do you remember the shock you felt over Columbine? The OKC bombing? The utter disbelief?

I want to protect my children enough that they feel that shock when they are old enough to process it. I believe that the world is mostly filled with good people. I want my children to feel that way also.

I don’t want their perceptions skewed by sensationalistic news and wild speculation. I don’t want them to be desensitized to violence.  I don’t want them to feel that just living their life is a dangerous endeavor.

****

I had a call from the principal today…

I know, Mom. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I said it.

What exactly happened?

Through his tears the story came out. He had been sitting with his friends at lunch and they were all talking about guns, and slingshots, and shooting, and hunting, and blowing stuff up — the way little boys are prone to do. I don’t think there exists a mother of sons who has not at least once lamented the fact that the boy will turn the most innocuous item into a pretend gun.

My son told his friends how he had been allowed to go to the shooting range with a close family friend. And then he said the fateful words, I wish I could bring the gun to school to show you.

As soon as he said it a little girl sitting next to him got up and ran hysterically to the teacher. My son sat there confused about why what he said was so bad. This was why I had protected him from this type of news. I didn’t want him to be the fearful child who became hysterical at the mere mention of a gun. I didn’t want him to have to even think about these sort of things in elementary school. 

I had to tell him about school shootings that had happened. I had to explain to him why everyone had to make a big deal about what he had said. I saw the innocence drain out of his face. Why, he kept asking. Why would someone shoot people? Children?

I had to tell him that I didn’t know why. I don’t know why. These questions can’t be answered in terms simple enough for a child to understand.   I am not even sure I understand. 

It has been months and he still brings it up.

Do you think someone will ever come to my school with a gun?

No.

But you don’t know for sure, Mom.

I think that it is highly unlikely that would ever happen.

But you don’t know that, Mom.

This is not a worry for you to carry, my son, there are adults to keep you safe.

I see him think about this for a few minutes. Then a shadow of realization crosses his face.

But weren’t there adults at those other schools?

I kiss the forehead of my anxious, sensitive son and grab hold of his chin.

I promise you that you are safe. Please believe me.

As he goes off to play, content for now with that answer, I pray that I am right.

About the author

Chris Jordan

http://notesfromthetrenches.com
Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.

Yes, they are all hers.

No she's not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.

Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That's why her youngest is almost 6.

Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.


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17 Responses to “Talking to Children About Violent News Stories”

  1. Jen Jan 12 at 3:59 pm Reply Reply

    I was crying as I read this.  I can’t imagine the horror of having your baby patted down and scanned.  I get sick just thinking about it.  And the whole boys and guns thing?  We weren’t going to let our son play with guns, but gave up when he started biting his toast into gun shapes.  After that it was gun-shaped sticks, LEGO/Tinkertoy guns…you get the picture.  I can totally hear him making a similar comment, having no idea that he shouldn’t say such a thing.

    I absolutely agree that our children shouldn’t be exposed to the violence in the world until they’re capable of handling it.  My 13-year-old daughter still isn’t allowed to read all of the newspaper because there are atrocities that I don’t think she needs to know about just yet.  Actually, she knows about them, but I don’t feel it’s in her best interests to be exposed to them on a daily basis.

  2. Kate Jan 12 at 4:17 pm Reply Reply

    you have described my feelings exactly, I am not sure when to share with them and how much, in 7th grade my daughter came home so upset because I had not told her about 9/11. She said the kids were all talking about it on the anniversary and she didn’t know. She asked me to share news like that so I said I would try but I really don’t want to.

  3. liz Jan 12 at 4:24 pm Reply Reply

    totally moving post…so sad. I can’t imagine being a child in school these days. I have an 8-month old son and I don’t know how I’ll handle things with him. But your way sounds right.

  4. Liz Jan 12 at 9:40 pm Reply Reply

    This was very powerful and moving. Thanks for sharing so eloquently. I had trouble imagining the security scenario with my baby. That made me want to cry.

  5. Mary Kay Jan 13 at 10:20 am Reply Reply

    We are expats currently living in China. I think one of the hardest adjustments when we move back home will be explaining to my 6-year-old why she can’t go to the bathroom by herself at the mall or to my 14-year-old why she can’t take a taxi by herself at 10pm. Because China is a communist country and so controlled, they have gotten used to the lack of serious crime here. As much as they want to move back home, they will not be happy about needing that extra level of caution and awareness. We have certainly learned a lot about the different kinds of security in the different countries we’ve traveled to.

  6. suzie Jan 13 at 10:54 am Reply Reply

    We recently had an “event” at the high school where my daughter is a freshman.  When we first heard that something had happened – stripped of details and so very vague – I had several moments of fear and thoughts of Columbine whirring through my head.  When the details eventually came out, it was hard to figure out if there was ever a real threat (seems very unlikely), or whether we were just dealing with the slightly inappropriate sense of humor of young teenage boys.

    My girls were very small when 9/11 happened, but they both remember it, and the ensuing protest, commentary … almost obsession.  While we did shield them from the horrific details and news coverage, they knew what was going on.  My 14yo just told me the other day that she remembers her 5th birthday party — all she wanted to do was play pin the tail on the donkey, but all the adults wanted to do was talk about 9/11 and complain about George Bush (we were in Berkeley, CA – what would you expect?)

    At their current ages (12 and 14), I tend toward the full disclosure.  I’m still more careful with my 12 year old, because she gets nervous, especially around airplanes.  But my 14 yo gets almost full honesty. We did talk about the shooting in Arizona yesterday, and I was talking about other devastating events – it ended up she knew nothing about Columbine, and spent the next 30-45 minutes digesting information she found on the internet about it.  

  7. Colleen Jan 13 at 6:46 pm Reply Reply

    This is such a powerful piece of writing on a heart-breaking topic. Thank you.

  8. Anonymous Jan 14 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    I am so confused. You said you want to protect your children from violence, but you let him go to the gun range to shoot a real gun. As a child? This just seems like such a contradiction to me. Guns are made to do what thing: injure or kill. It just seems like a giant paradox to, on one hand shelter your children from the subject of violence, because they aren’t old enough to process it, but a boy is old enough to process shooting a gun at a gun range? I am so confused. I think part of the problem is desensitizing boys to guns, romanticizing them, making a casual trip to the gun range seem like fun or a sport. They lack the maturity at that age to understand the full scope and power of what that weapon is capable of.

    JoAnn,
    I disagree. I think exposing children to the power and destruction of what a gun can do teaches them to respect it. I think it UN-romanticizes the gun. I didn’t go into all the details in my post, since it would then have gone on for another thousand words, but there was a lot of teaching involved. We know quite a few people who hunt and have guns in their home for that purpose. Much more so since we moved to Texas. I was not writing at all about gun control, or whether shooting at a gun range is a “sport,” or the ethics of hunting.

    I was using the most recent events to illustrate my point. I don’t think that there is any need for children to be exposed to all the details of violent news stories, whether they are shootings, rapes, abductions, etc. Children need to feel safe. But also it occurs to me that innocent things are being twisted. Learning how to shoot a gun will not turn my son into a cold blooded murderer.

    Chris

  9. KellyW Jan 14 at 12:52 pm Reply Reply

    I shielded my kids from the news when they were younger. Much harder to do with a 14 yr old in the house.

    Hate that moment when the innocence is shattered. Children should not be burdened with the insanity of adults.

    Did talk to my oldest about the goodness in Arizona – those that were brave, those who did not capitulate, those that took action and protected others, those that helped. This he needs to know about.

  10. barb Jan 14 at 5:20 pm Reply Reply

    I nearly tackled my daughter in Church Sunday to “protect” her, after a loud noise over the speakers. I hadnt realized how upsetting the Tucson shooting’s really were to me. My daughter is 19, and remembers 9/11, this is the world she has always lived in. that is what is so sad. I was the one startled and scared, adn shocked. she was sad and upset by it, but not really shocked. I agree Chris, keep their innocence as long as you can. this world can be so mean to our babies. My daughter giggled when i told her why i jumped on her at church, thinking i was paranoid, my adult friends all thought i was just being a good mom. btw, we are in AZ, so it’s really close to home.

  11. Katie Jan 14 at 6:58 pm Reply Reply

    My youngest daughter was not yet born when 9/11 happened. My husband’s birthday just happens to be September 11th. The other day, while talking to grandma, she said “Dad doesn’t like his birthday”. I can assume grandma asked “Why?”. My darling baby girl says, totally off the wall, like it was a big deal, but not the end of the world,”something bad happened… some buildings fell down and a lot of people died”. Some people can’t understand how I haven’t explained it in full detail for her. I don’t understand why I should. Why should she be scared that every time we go into a building that has stairs that a plane could come crashing down into it – not because of engine failure, but because there are groups of people out there who don’t value her life – or their own. My older one was but 3 when it happened, and she remembers me basically falling on the sofa and starting to cry. She asked me why I was crying, and I told her a lot of people just died.She said “oh. Do you want to play legos?” I scooped her up, kissed her a thousand times (This was when she still let you kiss her) and said – OF COURSE I DO! You know what she wanted to build? The Twin Towers.That way the Firemen could still come rescue the people.

    I don’t really talk about all these horrific things in detail. They know that things go on, but they are children. Add to the fact that their dad is in the Army, and is currently deployed, they don’t need to worry about all this stuff when they are already worried about whether daddy will come home or not because of news broadcasts. So we don’t watch the news. (I do, at times, when they are gone, but it freaks me out so much that I try not to)
    Also,taking a boy to learn the proper ways of handling a gun, or any weapon, is not romanticizing guns. It is teaching them the power and what a bullet actually does.That is isnt like a video game. Heck, my 8 year old helps grandpa reload bullets.She thinks its a fun thing to do with grandpa and he thinks its awesome that he can teach her about all sorts of military history while she is in the moment. They are only little for so long… and like everything else, we, as parents, have to make the choices of how to raise them.When to start subjecting them to the not-so-nice-side of life. It has to happen eventually, but why does a7 or 8 year old be scared to go to school? My kids school as “Active Shooter”DRILLS.Like fire drills,but in case of a shooter. I am conflicted. One hand, greater chance of survival if they know what to do. other hand…. they shouldnt be thinking that could happen at all. And of course, then the profiling begins with the black trenchcoat type…perpetuating it further and further. Difficult times.

  12. Elizabeth Jan 15 at 11:13 am Reply Reply

    Lovely piece. I don’t do the same with my kids – we watch the news and talk about it, and my 4th grader has to write a weekly current events report for school and they all discuss them. My oldest kids are adults, and I think they have turned out to be sensitive and thoughtful about the violence in the world, not desensitized. I guess I chose not to shelter my kids because I was worried they would make mistakes and endanger themselves if they didn’t understand the consequences.

  13. Kristi Jan 17 at 5:38 pm Reply Reply

    We were living on Fort Hood last year during the shootings. My children were locked down in their school for almost 9 hours as it was less than 50 yards from the building that the massacre occured in. My children were all born after 9/11, and my husband has just started his fifth deployment (2 to Iraq and 3 in Afghanistan), so we had to deal with this issue much sooner than I would have liked. They have had friends and classmates that have lost a parent in combat, and my husband is EOD (he diffuses the IED’s) but we have always stressed that the reason he was going over there was so that they would be safe and not have to worry about events like 9/11 happening where they live. The Fort Hood shootings shattered that feeling of safety. Trying to help my children hold on to their innocence while still giving them the tools to deal with the stark realities of their father’s job is one of the things that keeps me awake at night. I wish I had wisdom to empart or words of comfort, but I don’t, so like you, I kiss them, hold them close and promise that they are safe, and then pray with all my might that they are!

  14. Damaris Jan 18 at 12:25 am Reply Reply

    My husband is a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. We live on campus at family student housing. It’s heaven. Except that someone gratified on the wall that on January 18th (tomorrow) they are going to shoot a couple people and then take their own life at the Social Sciences building. Scary! As I put my children to bed I kept thinking about the scary things people say, not to mention the scary things people do. I am generally a very relaxed person but after last week and after this incident here on campus I have to say I am scared.

  15. Amy Jan 19 at 11:28 am Reply Reply

    I think some things have to be discussed whether we want to or not especially when I know my children have lock-down drills at school. The teacher locks the door, covers the door window and they all move into a remote corner of the room. Most of the door windows are already covered probably for this reason. The children are asked to be very quiet. I’d rather they know why they do these things and that it came from me. Sometimes they come home talking about news that I had no intention of talking to them about. Recently I found myself have a talk with my 11 year old nephew about what sexual molestation is because a volunteer at his school was arrested while at school for it. He didn’t know what it was, that maybe it wasn’t a big deal and wondered why his mother was so worried. So I felt like he should know in order to proect himself since he had obviously already been exposed to it. It is sad what we need to tell our children at such young ages.

  16. Sarah Jan 20 at 12:57 am Reply Reply

    This post made me really sad because of the reality that this is the world we are raising children in.  It further tugged at my heart because we live in Tucson, very very close to where these shootings occurred.  We have been very careful to try not to discuss any of it in front of our two older children (ages 5 and 3) for the same reasons you mentioned.  However, the funerals of two of the deceased were held in the church across the street from our house and with the media circus that ensued some questions from our children followed.  Then a couple days ago our daughter came home from school asking about Christina Green being killed and Giffords being shot in the head.  Apparently, a friend of hers on the playground (also a 5 year old) was talking about it.  This led to a discussion that I really would rather not have had to expose her to at such a young age.  The complexities involved I believe are beyond their level of understanding and it makes me sad to have to acknowledge that we live in such a world where things like this *could* happen.

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