Family / Grief & loss / Life / Parenting

Open Thread: How Are You Approaching Newtown with Your Kids? Today is Monday, and all of our  school-aged children who left school last Friday knowing nothing of the horror in Newtown, CT school (if indeed they did) will re-enter their larger school communities.  Many schools, my kids’ school included, will be prepared to address the topic should children bring it up. (Here’s some coverage of a number of school districts’ approaches in the New York Times.) But  how will it come up?  Should it (and could it) be avoided? If so, for what age kids? And what to do if they find out partial information from other, older kids?

School Bus
School Bus, from the Flickr photo stream of Svadilfari.

I learned from our principal that they anticipating (and hoping) that children in grades K – 3 won’t come to school with knowledge of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and so are likely not to bring questions to class. Grades 4 and 5 are more of an open question, she thought, and teachers in those grades are bracing (and preparing) for the possibility that their students may have heard about the school shooting, and if so, will have need to talk about it.  “You don’t want them to get their information from rumors on the schoolyard,” she said. And yet, she noted no teacher or administrator was planning to open up the topic before a child did first.

For all of us who care for elementary-aged children, how to approach this topic is a very challenging issue.

Tell us in the comments: How have you approached this? How old is your kid (/are your kids)? If they don’t know, do you plan to help them continue to not know until they find out on their own when they’re older? If they do know, how did they find out? And how have you talked to them about it? And finally, how are you holding up? How is this affecting you, and what are you finding helps?


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  1. What happens when the older kids come home tonight and talk in front of their younger siblings who then go back to school tomorrow?

    I really think a lot of our kids are going to know about this and a lot of us are going to be having really hard conversations this week. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. No child should have to know that this happened. Because this shouldn’t happen.

    Thankfully the weekend has given us parents a bit of time to process and work through. And maybe stop crying. Which will help us if talking to our kids becomes a requirement.

    Our daughter is 3.5. She has no idea. But she is in a mixed age Montessori pre-school class with children up to age 6. And many of them have older siblings. And they’re all talkers. My daughter is home sick today so she gets another day not knowing. But I really do worry more about tomorrow for this one.

    • I can totally sympathize with your concern. I was talking with a Kindergarten parent after we finished the sweet Monday AM in-class reading we do, and he had misunderstood our principal’s first note to us on Friday to mean the teachers *would* bring up the event in class so we *should* talk to our kids first.

      After clarifying what I understood our counsel to be (the school staff will be ready to help students who need it; stand by for more info later in the weekend), I asked how his child was. He said his child asked a few questions, but was otherwise quiet. “But,” he added, “you never know what’s going on inside, you know?”

      I wonder if this simply exceeds very young people’s capacity to believe and assimilate? Which of course is just where so many of us are.

      I vacillate between: “We all have a moral responsibility to change this gun culture,” and “A capricious, random meteorite tore through that school’s roof.”

      Both, I think, are true.

  2. We have 8 y/o b/g twins in the 3rd grade. We are in a Montessori environment as well mixed with older grades through 6th. We have not said anything to them yet and our school is not bringing up the subject either. I want them to learn this from us and not the school playground. This weekend afforded us an opportunity to regroup our thoughts and the discussion will happen this week. But I think we are going to focus more on the ways to keep safe in any situation (school, church, etc.) and what to do in an event such as this. How listening to the teachers, taking cover and hiding is what needs to be done. As with a safety plan at home in case of a fire, we need and must prepare our children for emergencies when we are not there. Children are taught not to take candy from strangers, not to get in a car with strangers, code words from parents so that you know that some people are safe….and they should know safety rules for events such as this too. We will probably reference the horrific events from Friday, but I don’t want them solely discussed and then make the twins afraid of attending their school and feeling unsafe. Tough call as a parent – tough conversations ahead. All with a heavy heart for these families that did not get to tuck their babies in Friday night and not get to spend Christmas with them.

    PS – Fred Rogers has something up on helpful ways to talk to your children regarding events such as this. We’ve compiled a lot of information for our discussion for various sites.

    • Thank you, Mia. Very worth passing that along specifically. Here’s what I think is the core Fred Rogers nugget on this: Tragic Events in the News. It’s so worthwhile (and the video is not shareable) that I want to transcribe key parts of it for folks who can’t watch the video right now:

      When children bring up something frightening, it’s helpful right away to ask them what they know about it. We often find that their fantasies are often very different from the actual truth. What children probably need to hear most from us adults is that they can talk with us about anything. And that we will do all we can to keep––

      Most ironically, the completion of that phrase–most likely, “to keep them safe”–was cut off. But still, it’s true, we will.

      This is a great single resource. Particularly as we all move further into the day, and our children wade further and further into the world outside our immediate control. :/

  3. After much reading (thank you for the links) and discussion, T and I decided 1) to fish around and see if our kids seemed to know anything (they didn’t) and 2) wait for them to come to us if they hear something. This was a personality-specific decision–experience has taught us that our kids do ask us about disturbing events if/when they hear about them, and since the jury was out on whether we should front-load the information, we decided to try this route.

    On campus this morning, I talked to our Kindergarten teacher, who said the district protocol for that age group is not to address it unless someone brings it up. I talked to our 2nd grade teacher who said (with the confidence of someone who has 20+ years teaching experience), “It will come up.” She planned to address this as a safety issue (our school is safe, this is how we make sure we’re safe, etc.) as they periodically address other safety issues. The teachers also have been advised to encourage the kids to ask their parents questions.

    Because she confirmed that they would be talking about it, I decided to tell our 2nd grader before he walked into class–better to hear it from me, in the words T and I had already vetted should the moment arise.

    I told him something that I had heard something in the news and I wanted to tell him about it because I thought kids at school might be talking about it. I told him something sad had happened in CT, that some kids had been hurt at a school. He asked for details and I explained that a man with a gun had entered a school, that the adults at the school had kept most of the kids safe, but that some of the kids had died. He asked why the man did it. I reminded him what he already knows about how some brains work differently, then I explained that this man’s brain didn’t know how to handle his anger. (I will follow this up on this later by explaining that most people whose brains work differently do not act this way.) I told him that incidents like this are really rare, and I told him that his school is safe, that his teachers know how to keep him safe, and that his mama and I know how to keep him safe. I asked him if he had any questions. He said no. I invited him to ask questions as they came up. He said okay. Then I made him “look me in my eyeballs” while I told him I loved him (what I do every day). Then I sent him off to class.

    Then I cried all the way home.

  4. The first grade teacher at my son’s school told them on Friday. I found that out when I said to both kids, on Friday evening, “Something really bad happened in the world today.” Noah popped up with, “Oh! I know! I know! Some kids and teachers were killed at a school, and the man who did it also killed his mom.”

    And then I had a (metaphorical) heart attack. My 4 year old looked terrified. I would NOT have shared the detail about killing his mom, but I’m DAMN glad I brought it up. She wanted to know if they had been shot in the eyes. Noah wanted to know if any of the kids escaped. They wanted to know how far away Connecticut was.

    BTW, to the first, I said I didn’t know but I didn’t think so. To the second, I said, “There were about 650 kids in the school, and 20 were killed.” He immediately smiled and happily announced, “So 630 of the kids got away! That’s good.” I went with his focus on that. And Connecticut is really far away, almost 800 miles from us.

    I also explained that this kind of thing almost never happens, but that some people have sicknesses in their brains that make them not understand what is ok and right vs what is not ok and really really bad.

    Today I’m going to try to ask him about it again, ideally not in front of the 4 year old. But I may not be able to do it — I cried TWICE in the car this morning, in the span of 15 minutes, due to both the NPR and BBC coverage of the funeral of a 6 year old boy, a first grader, named Noah.

  5. Following up a few days later: as of midweek, neither of my kids has brought up the topic. Like we always do, each day at school when we pick them up, and again at the dinner table, and again at night (with the older one; younger one falls right asleep at lullabies) we’ve been checking in. We ask: what’s happened at school, what did they learn, what came up, do they have anything they want to talk to us about? So far, all quiet.

    But today I heard from another parent what a different experience another school had: her son’s teacher said something quasi-abstract in class (something sad happened in the nation today; explained that the flags were at half-mast at the school because some people died), while tearing up. Her son (8 or 9? I think?) was very unnerved and crying as he kept asking her: who died? who died? what happened? And she was then forced, in broad strokes and as best she could, to convey to him the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Thereafter, no communication home to parents from school administrators about what the school was doing/ saying, no suggestions about what parents could do, etc. One family is already pulling (or talking about pulling) their child from the school based on their experience of its handling of the issue.

    This is very challenging to most all of us. Not all approach the issue in the same way, but also, unfortunately, as my friend noted, not all who are in positions to shepherd communities with kids are operating with what feels like sufficient emotional intelligence.

    Many of us, in the wake of this event, now have a good idea what would be of most help from our schools, our kids caregivers and teachers, the works. We owe it to our school leaders and others to praise and support them when we feel they’ve understood our needs well, and constructively provide feedback when they haven’t. Thereafter, we hope and pray and lobby and insist on reforms such that we won’t have to put these policies into practice again.

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