What do we tell the children?

There are so many bad things happening in our world. And as an avid NPR listener—when in the car (don’t worry, I let my kids listen to Casper Babypants, and BNL Kids, and Rocknocerous too, but Mama’s gotta get her news fix somewhere!)—my kids hear about them. I’m a Social Worker by profession and I’m not one to shy away from a tough conversation with my kids.  And as my oldest gets older (he’s 5 now), those tough conversations have been getting a lot tougher. I’ve spent my career talking to kids who are dying (and their loved ones) about death. It doesn’t get much tougher than that.   But having these sometimes very sad conversations with my own kid is really hard.

So, what do we tell our kids when they hear about a mass shooting, with racism at its core, in South Carolina, or about another shooting in a movie theater/school/church/pick your place, or about an ISIS attack in Syria or Iraq, or about a family who got evicted because they couldn’t pay rent? Sad, scary, devastating stories about our town, country, or world are not things we should hide from our children. Instead, we can take an opportunity to talk to our children in an honest, caring, open way that I hope will help prevent many of these tragedies from occurring in the future. My hope is that my children won’t have to have as many of these tough conversations with their own kids.

When my son heard the reporter on NPR say, “9 people were gunned down by a 21 year-old in a South Carolina church,” the conversation went something like this:

Ryan: Mama, what did he say? What is gunned down?
Me: It means that one bad guy shot 9 people with a gun.
Ryan: Did they die?
Me: Yes, they did.
Ryan: Why did he do that?
Me: Because he was a very bad person. He wasn’t taught how to love people the way we do.
Ryan: Why did he want to hurt them?
Me: Sometimes, bad people think it’s ok to hate other people just because they are different. And we know that’s not ok.
Ryan: What was different about them?
Me: Well, the bad man who shot them had light colored skin like you and I have. And the people he shot had brown skin.
Ryan: He shot them because their skin was a different color?
Me: Yes, he did.
Ryan: That’s silly.
Me: Yes, it is very silly. It’s terrible…and very, very sad.
(long silence……)
Ryan: Mama,  are there bad guys like that near here?
Me: Maybe. But we are very lucky. We live in a very safe town, and the police, and all the other good guys do everything they can to keep us safe from any bad guys.

And that’s where it ended this time. He’s getting older, and one day I know the follow-up question will be, “But Mama, what if the bad guy near here had a gun and still was able to hurt people? What if they hurt us? Or someone we know?” And I would say, “That would be terrible. And we would all be scared and sad. But we would also all work together to help the people who were hurt. And we would then do everything we could to try and make sure it never happens again.” As he gets older, I’ll explain that it’s our responsibility to do what we can NOW. No one should wait until the next tragedy is in their backyard.

Here are some general guidelines I use when talking with my kids, or other kids about really tough subjects:

1.     Be Honest:
Kids are smart and intuitive. They can easily tell when you’re not being truthful or are trying to hide things from them. And hiding things from kids only makes them feel more anxious and worried. Children have very vivid imaginations. If they feel that something is being kept from them they may imagine things are much worse than they really are. The truth is scary. But not knowing what to believe or who to trust is scarier.

2.       Give Information In Tidbits
In the conversation I had with my son about what happened in South Carolina you can see that I fed him little bits of information at a time. I let him ask lots of follow-up questions. I let him voice the questions that mattered to him. Sometimes, we can give kids too much information and overwhelm them. If we spit out too much information too quickly, we might cause them to worry about things that they haven’t even begun to understand, much less worry about. So, follow your child’s lead. Answer the questions they ask one step at a time.

3.       Don’t be afraid to show emotions
Not showing our honest emotions is akin to not telling the truth. And as I said, above, kids are intuitive. They know when we’re hiding something. When kids can sense that they aren’t being given the whole picture—and they can sense this at a very young age (a fascinating study on this topic was just recently published, you can read about it here)— they grow anxious and distrusting.  If we don’t let kids see us cry, or show anger or frustration, then they will think that doing so is wrong. Hiding our feelings teaches our kids to hide their feelings. Showing our emotions teaches kids that it’s ok to show theirs too.

4.       Give them hope
As grown-ups we all look for the positives in tragic situations. Not doing so leaves us feeling hopeless and paralyzed by fear. Children too, need that glimmer of hope. Mr. Roger’s quote (above) about looking for the helpers is one of my favorites. It can be used in many situations and circumstances. Develop the habit in yourself of looking for the helpers so that your children learn how to find hope in the most tragic situations.

Gandhi quote

5.     Keep the lines of communication open
One of the best things we can do as parents for our children is to assure them that we are always available to talk, that no topic is off limits, and that they can trust us with the really hard stuff. If we don’t talk openly, easily, and honestly with our children on a daily basis, then they won’t seek us out in scary, sad, and difficult times. Helping our kids understand, process, cope, survive, and thrive after a tragedy is not something achieved only in times of tragedy. We work toward it every single day. The way you communicate with your children and with the people you love teaches your children how to communicate with you, with the people they love, and the people they encounter on a daily basis. As Gandhi so wisely instructed us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and begin with your children.

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