How to talk to your kids about tragedy. Answer: No freaking clue.

Yesterday we spent a morning eating waffles at the diner with too much maple syrup, giggling over iPad games (Thalia rocks at Cut the Rope), dressing up like Cowgirl Jessie, fake trick-or-treating from room to room, outfitting rag dolls in Madonna gloves and fairy wings, and explaining why there are people in the world who would shoot a congresswoman.

Since the girls had caught a few unfortunate moments of the CNN broadcast which I hurriedly snapped on with them in the room, I was obliged to address their questions. At first I said something vague to Thalia like, “well, somebody hurt somebody else very far away from here” but that answer was satisfactory only to Sage who happily resumed collecting seashells and game pieces in her plastic pumpkin tote.

Thalia wanted to know more: What happened? Why? Who did it? What does he look like? What was he thinking? How did he get a gun? Was he a bad guy?

Her net takeaway from our discussion: “Sometimes people hurt other people in the government because they don’t like their rules, and that’s not okay.” She also knows that we will always do everything we can do in the world to keep her and Sage safe. And she knows that this is why it’s very important to us that we pick good leaders, who also want to protect us and make the world better.

Of course there’s a lot I didn’t tell her. She doesn’t know that Congresswoman Giffords is a mommy. She doesn’t know that a 9 year-old girl died. She also doesn’t know that I checked Sara Palin’s Facebook page, the digital Trafalgar Square of our day where every nut gets a soapbox and a small crowd, and saw updates like this:

As I said on Twitter, regretfully there’s no “report for being an asshole” button on Facebook.

Of course I am not a psychic and don’t know for a fact that this guy was politically motivated any more than John Hinkley was. I also know that these events are not new to our history; there have been assassins and domestic terrorists and mentally unstable people with guns going back to Hamilton and Lincoln and Reagan and Oklahoma City. However having it all happen as a mom makes it somehow new and raw and extra ugly and extra anguish-inducing for me. Perhaps for you too?

Hell, I can’t even watch SVU anymore. How am I supposed to deal with this?

Thalia was born a day before the 2005 London bombings. I remember lying in the hospital bed, cradling my scrawny little newborn, discussing with Nate how unfortunate it was to raise kids in a world where this kind of thing happens. I hadn’t yet thought though how unfortunate it would be to have to talk about it to them. Or that one January day, nearly six years later, I would wake up worried that maybe I had said too much.

Or maybe, I hadn’t said enough.


33 thoughts on “How to talk to your kids about tragedy. Answer: No freaking clue.”

  1. This past September 11, when MSNBC ran the coverage from 2001 in real time, we left it on in the background on purpose, so we could open a dialogue with our second grader (age 7). It was heart wrenching and we sort of re-lived that day through her eyes, newly discovered fears and questions.

    We were honest with her about why she didn't know about it before then: she was too young to comprehend any of it.

    There is a lot she still doesn't know about that day. I don't think her 7 year old mind has put together that there were people in those big buildings that fell. BUT, and this is a big “BUT”…yesterday we had that to refer back to when her questions came up. “Remember when we told you about the bad people from September 11….”It gave her a comprehension of people who want to hurt people.

    It isn't a perfect solution, and as she grows and learns more about the human condition, there will be more questions. But we have started.

  2. I really think that tweet by Mark Kerr was probably intended to be sarcastic. And the rate it spread through twitter is really frightening.

    I didn't have the TV on yesterday at all; in fact we were skiing when the event happened and I didn't find out about it until much later. Though I spent the better part of the evening glued to the news coverage as well as the twitter dissemination of information, I didn't discuss it with either the 7 year-old or the 3 three-year old, who were uncharacteristically playing together happily.

    I suppose I've come to understand that the bad news comes every day. Sometimes there is no way to understand it. For me, at this moment, it comes down to this: A person with some sort of emotional/mental breakdown got access to a gun that allows the rapid fire of bullets.

    The gun lobby will tell us the gun isn't the problem.

    The government will pretend to listen and then ban dropside cribs.

    I'm not sure how to reconcile that in my own mind, let alone explain it to my kids.

  3. Lord, wouldn't that be great if it were sarcastic?

    I'd be happy not to be in on the joke, for once.

  4. I chose to let our oldest (also 2005) watch a bit of the CNN coverage with me. Thankfully — omg, thankfully — it was early on and they weren't yet reporting that a child had been shot and killed.

    He also had questions. And I also gave the same “Someone shot people for reasons we don't understand. And that's never okay.” Then I launched into a bit of gun safety, which is so crazy with boys because they once turned CANDY CANES into guns. !!!!

    He eventually went back to torturing his younger brother, something for which I was glad for once.

    I think we all handle these issues the best we can. Thank you for providing a dialogue here where we can all discuss it.

  5. There is no answer as to how to talk to kids about this type of horror in the world. If there was, we wouldn't still be asking ourselves and everyone else how to do it…and I'm guessing it's a question mothers have had for thousands of years.

    I read about the event online. (We don't have cable.) My fifteen-year-old, who hadn't heard about the incident, announced that she had decided to run for student council because she wanted to do things, unlike others on the student council (so she feels). I had a lot of mixed feelings and internal reactions about it…instead of feeling happy for my daughter's ambitions, I started thinking about…well….

    It's so heartbreaking.

  6. I don't know what the answer is. A week after September 11th, my husband and I were watching our then 3 year old daughter dance around my parents' pond and wondered how such a beautiful little girl can live in such an ugly world.

    My instinct is so strong to spare my children the tragedy, to focus on the “far away” of it, and yet, this is the world that they live in and must negotiate.

    I saw it with my daughter when they touched upon The Holocaust in school and studied slavery.
    It still breaks my heart.

    I think you did really well.

  7. I spent all day in the hospital with my dad in a different state from my children yesterday. I didn't even find out about the news myself until I checked my laptop before going to bed and was shocked. I doubt my children know since they probably played games with the babysitter while my husband was at army drill all day.

    But the thing about having a spouse who gets deployed is that we had to address scary news stories with our children. Stories that went unnoticed by people around us when soldiers were killed hit very close to home for us. Anyone hurt in Iraq could be 'daddy.' It was very isolating because we were aware of the war on a daily basis in a manner no one else seemed to be. At least (and this is a stretch to find any positive) when there is a tragedy that has everyone's attention it's possible to show people mourning, or proposing some kind of action. It's eerie and disconcerting to mourn alone.

  8. I think you giving Thalia & Sage the message that you and Nate do everything to keep them safe and that there are many adults out there to protect them is exactly what they need to hear at this age.

    Somewhat related, Ry went through a period where a caregiver was teaching him to “stop, drop and roll” at age 3. Her son was a firefighter and she meant well, but honestly, it was too for a little kid to be burdened with the responsibility to THINK about taking care of himself like that should a fire hit. We think it was actually causing him lots of anxiety.

    It was much healthier and reassuring for him (at that very young age) to just know that an adult would always be there to try to keep him safe. The chances of that NOT being the case were too slim.

  9. @Korinthia, thank you for the reminder that military families don't get to hide from the truth of war and violence as easily. It's a privilege, in a way, to even have that choice to make.

    Thanks everyone for the discussion here. It's so helpful to me.

  10. You answered her questions, and her takeaway was brief, accurate, and reassuring. Gold star for you, mama.

    To Isabel's point, I had anxiety similar to her son's because I got too much information too soon. I believe that parents sometimes offer (or push) more information than their children can handle, because they think their kids are smart enough, or they're worried about their safety, or a combination of both.

    We actually haven't talked about it yet. Just now is the first time we've turned on the news since the shooting. We'll see how the discussion goes, but I hope I do as well as you did.

  11. Right now I just shield my four and half year old from the news, because she hears and repeats any and everything and I don't have a clue what to do. I live in Salt Lake City, and when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, most parents I knew had to deal with this problem because the coverage of the story was extraordinary in its scope and every local child knew that a child had been taken from her own bed in the night. A boy I knew of insisted on sleeping in his parents' room, another child had crying fits and would just sob Elizabeth's name. No one could keep their kids from the story because every store had a flyer on the door, every church had prayer vigils, thousands of people scoured the foothills around the citym and every school had safety talks, plus all the regular media sources. Last night we had to try to explain slavery because we heard Buffalo Soldier playing (and yes we did enjoy trying to explain how someone could look like a Buffalo as well as the concept of slavery) and I am without a clue how to handle shootings. I'm guessing that it is very important that my child knows that we will try to make her as safe as we can but I will definitely be checking back her to get more tips because I feel wholly inadequate to the task.

  12. I have a distinct memory from 911.

    My son is 10 months old and playing with blocks. He is building towers and knocking them down.

    The television is on and we are watching in horror as the Towers fall. People jump and blocks fall.

    That was the first time I thought about how to explain tragedy. Since then we have talked about gas chambers, why MLK was shot and much more.

    There are no good answers here. But I found that by telling him that there are bad people who sometimes do bad things that was enough. They don't need a ton of details, just a little.

    And in the time that has elapsed since my children learned how to read it has become more difficult to shield them from some of this.

  13. When my 10 yr old son saw the newspaper today, he said “we live in a stupid country because so many people have guns.” I said that precisely because so many people have guns and choose violence rather than discussion it makes it that much more important for he and his friends to grow up and make the world a better place (nothing like a little pre-breakfast life challenge, eh?) — but we also talked about how our country manages, in many ways, to escape the strife that plagues other countries. But I have to say that it crossed my mind that our “public discourse” is getting more and more violent, less and less able to find a middle ground. Makes me worried for his generation…

  14. My kids are much younger (my oldest is 6) and I still really try to sheild them from stuff. My son tends to be a bit anxious and he had a fireman come and speak to his kindergarten class. For the next two weeks he talked nonstop about ways he could die by fire.

    I also remember as a child, my parents watched the news in front of me, and I fretted endlessly about being bombed by the Russians or having our house robbed. I wish they would have been more discerning.

    I also had a Martin Luther King book stashed in a closet – I bought it because it was beautifully written but I didn't think my kids were old enough. Well, a babysitter found it and read it to my son, and then I got to have a very hard discussion with him about why someone was killed for being black. My son is black, and I know that racism is a conversation we will have many times, but I just kind of wanted to protect his innocence from that reality for a few more years.

    I was in Haiti during the earthquake and had two of my kids with me. That was hard – trying to protect them from the knowledge that death was just beyond the gate. I did a lot of faking it that week, and my husband did not tell my kids at home anything about what was going on. It was so disturbing for us as adults and I still feel like I'm processing it. I just didn't think my kids could handle knowing how close we were to tragedy.

    I do want my kids to grow up as concerned and empathic citizens, but I'm holding off on explaining some of the hard parts of life for now. We sponsor a few kids through Compassion but that is as far as it goes in terms of educating them on the hardships and tragedies that others may face. I agree that it is a privilege to live in a place where that is an option.

  15. My kids were young when 9/11 happened and they literally had the TV's on at school. Even though we were in NC, there were families directly affected by the event. Trying to explain something that horrific to kids is almost impossible. Basically, bad things happen in the world but you can't let that knowledge paralyze you or else the crazies win. That's the lesson I try to impart.

  16. The most difficult decisions and conversations are the ones where there is no right answer. It sounds like you did a great job handling the situation for your kids.

    I did not discuss the situation with my kids. I am lucky that we don't really watch tv and were out most of the day celebrating my mom's birthday and was able to avoid it.

    Whether that is really the right way to go for the long-term, I am not sure. But for my 6, 4, &2 year olds it was the best decision for me yesterday.

  17. When I recently let Julian pick a book off his classroom bookshelf for me to read before I left him in the morning, he chose one about MLK Jr. I felt uncomfortable with a lot of the language in the book, and ultimately, we know how that story ended. We live right next to a school and street named for Dr King and so his face is very recognizable to my son. I felt at a loss for how to explain the assassination.

    Next month, Black History Month, the kids will surely get their first elementary school exposure to the story. I am anxious to hear what explanation is provided for the killing, and on edge about how Julian will interpret it.

    He is not aware of the shootings yesterday and I might just keep it that way.

  18. Over the past year, I've had the experience of helping my 5-year-old son face a stretch of losses that have yet to relent, including death, grave illness and divorce. I keep on holding onto the hope that these unavoidable circumstances, at his tender but adaptable age, and my willingness to help him face them rather than run from the have been their own strange kind of blessing. We're surviving. He may know so much more about mortality than a lot of people I know who are 40 (let alone other kids his age) but he's mostly happy and accepting of the harder realities. Fears come up, but we're ever more experienced at expecting them.

    But I haven't taken this event up with him. There have been news fragments on in his vicinity more than once this weekend, but (fortunately?) he's had a cold and, as of tonight, signs of a possible ear infection, so I'm just waiting to see if he heard enough to ask me about it.

    I'm hoping not, because I don't know what to say. Death I can do. Horrible brain illnesses with dementia or cancer or heart attacks I can do. But senseless, political mass murder? The death of a lovely, curious child? I'm utterly lost.

  19. I'm dreading the day I have to give my children some sort of explanation for the horrible things that happen in this world. My son is 20 months old and my daughter is 4 months old and so far to them the world is all about love and play and Spongebob Squarepants. Wish it were always going to be this simple.

  20. Life in general is never easy to explain to children, or adults for that matter.
    Hug your babies and love them fiercely. That’s about all any parent can do.

  21. This parenting thing is not for sissies, that's for sure. I've had a rash of “big” questions this past week that left me struggling for answers. I try my hardest to give them straightforward information while trying my hardest not to scare them senseless. Starting slowly is the key, I think. Answer the questions and let them think it over…I'm sure more questions will come.

  22. I'm afraid that until there are politicians in the US who have the guts to stand up and be counted this type of thing will be more common than it is in the rest of the developed world. I can't believe that most Americans are happy with the law as it stands.

  23. I was seven months pregnant with my oldest when 9/11 happened. I remember thinking to myself, what kind of world am I bringing this precious little girl into.

    I have no answers. I know I will have to explain that a little girl died. A little girl, three months older than my own little girl. I have to explain it somehow, even though I don't understand it myself. And that sucks.

    I think what you did, what I will do, is the right thing. Explain to their level, while reminding them that they are safe. Maybe in some ways, it's a lie. But we have no choice but to believe it to be true.

  24. I picked the Mister Rogers book on parenting at the library because, well, he's Mister Rogers. It actually had a whole chapter on addressing tragedy, on a national & international scope, with your kids. What I took away was – be age appropriately honest & if you've got the TV on, be sure to point out how many people are helping. This last point stuck out to me because the frenzy on TV can be overwhelming for young children but if you can direct their attention to the good taking place, then they might feel comforted.

  25. Since my kids experienced the death of an uncle at an early age we've made the point to illustrate just how the pieces are picked up after, how the pain is redeemed, and how we can choose either to add pain into the world or erase it with love and selflessness.

    When my older children heard the radio burst in with the news, I almost turned it off. I did not. I wanted to wait until a stopping point or they asked a question. When they did ask I asked them what they thought happened. To my ever lasting joy, our 7 year old said, “Mom, someone took all their pain and made it someone else's fault.”

    Since that time I've showed them stories about those who have helped and talked to them about the first responders, and those at the hospital. My hope is to put in their minds that while evil does happen, there are more good people than evil. It is something I hope to believe someday too.

  26. Oh man, I have become SUCH a softie! I used to be able to watch SVU and Criminal Minds and Intervention. Now if one of them features a kid, I can't hit the remote fast enough. These things devastate me, I've become far more empathetic. Maybe too much for my own good.

  27. With a 3.5yo & a 5.5yo running around the house, I have to be on my toes. They hear everything, they know when Daddy & I are talking in Code.
    They are such little love machines, such trusting, clean slates. It breaks my heart that i need to be the person to open their world up to things like the fact that massacres happen. That some people shoot others over politics. Man, it is such a mindscrew.

  28. Just have to say love the title of this post. Yesterday at the library my four old grabbed a book about 9/11 off the shelf…how do you describe any that…agreed no freaking clue! We just don't watch the news around him.

  29. I liked reading all the comments here, because I admit to being a total chicken. . and not having a clue as to how I'll deal with this kind of thing when my daughter is a little bit older. I will absolutely be referring to the wise women of the blogosphere when the time comes. Which I HOPE it won't for quite some time.

  30. My son is only one and he has no concept yet of tragedy (unless you count the tragedy of not always getting what you want exactly when you want it). I'd love to keep it that way but I know I won't be able to no matter how hard I try. Breaks my heart just to think about it, but I do believe it's important to think about it beforehand like you are doing.

  31. I just stumbled upon you via twitter – your bio about spectacular breasts made me spit out my water. It's hard to get me to spit…I mean, out of laughter. Oh…I'll be followin'…

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