Normally the one to talk our kids through the milestones and tragedies of life, I found myself in the odd, and rare, position of being out-of-town as the tragedy in Connecticut was unfolding. From a thousand miles away, I could not hold them. Nor could I really talk to them from that distance.
Arriving home late Sunday night, I had no idea what, if anything, they knew about Sandy Hook. I didn’t know if they were afraid. Or sad. Or anything. What I did know is that I wanted to control the information. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Which is how I found myself having three very different conversations with my three very different children early this Monday morning.
“Have you heard anything about something very sad that happened at a school in Connecticut on Friday?”
Ben is 12. But a special 12 due to his having Asperger’s Syndrome. He had not heard anything and was visibly shaken by the news that after killing his mother, a young man had gone onto a school campus and killed small children and several adults. He got teary and expressed a great deal of fear. I focused on the bravery of the teachers and faculty. I told him about the security precautions in place at his school. I reminded him of the many students whose lives were saved by the first responders and the teachers. He asked why anyone would do such a horrible thing. I asked him what he thought might cause someone to do such a horrible thing. Mental illness came up. As I folded his ever-growing frame into my arms, I refrained from telling him that the words “autism” and “Asperger’s” have been thrown about in the media.
“Have you heard anything about something very sad that happened at a school in another state on Friday?”
Lilly is 9. But the special kind of 9 that comes from having an older sibling with a developmental disability. She had heard about the shooting, but it was clear that she had heard earlier reports as her information was not correct. Lilly wanted to know if it was true that the shooter had killed himself. When I confirmed what she had heard, she breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. “Oh good. Then we’re safe.” As I folded her small frame into my arms, I refrained from telling her that there is no safe anymore. There will be time for that reality. Now is the time for her to process that kids younger than she were killed at a place that should be safe.
“Have you heard anything about something very sad that happened at a school far from us last week?”
Jacob is 5. He is in kindergarten. He is about the same age, the same size as the majority of the victims. The one who would have the hardest time understanding the magnitude of this tragedy. And the one whose very presence made this tragedy so much more difficult for me. Having just had his first lock-down drill at school two weeks ago, I used that as a framework for the conversation. Because Jacob had been in the music room during their drill, the first thing he wanted to know was if the children in the music room were the ones who “got killed.” And if they had had lock-down tests at that school, too. As I folded his tiny frame into my arms, I refrained from telling him that even with lock-down drills, some kids his age would never get any older.
Each year, during the Passover seder, we are introduced to the Four Sons. Each child had a question and each one required a unique response. One that was tailored to the needs (intellectual, emotional, spiritual) of the individual child. Such an approach respects the differences while helping each child learn and grow.
Like other parents, I don’t have all the answers. Nor can I make every corner of this world safe for my children. But I can choose the right words for each child at the particular moment. And do my best to listen to what he or she is asking.
And then fold them into my arms.
For more perspective on Sandy Hook, read one mother’s initial reaction to the news, one mom who didn’t talk to her son at all about the tragedy, and Mayim Bialik’s faith in God amidst this kind of tragedy.