Talking Tragedy to Your Kids

Photo from Newtown via the Newtown Bee, and the Associated Press
Photo from Newtown via the Newtown Bee, and the Associated Press

It’s rare I post twice in a day, but while I do research for my work and take a break to inhale a lap burger I have some thoughts.

I could sit and pander and say the same things you’ve already heard on social media and television – “go home and hug your kids a little tighter” – but that doesn’t help.

I’m in a unique and strange position to have to both live through tragedies and report on them as well as be a parent and talk to kids who range from eighteen to nine – the same age as many of the kids who attend that very school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Years ago I got some flack for making my then-eight-year-old daughter leave CNN on the television and watch the events of 9/11 unfold.  I was told that she was too little . . . too formative . . . too innocent to have to face people jumping out of buildings or the towers falling knowing that there were people inside there.  But was I really being bad?  Was I doing a disservice?

One of the things I live by when it comes to my kids is the fact that they’re smarter than adults give them credit for being.  Kids know when you’re scared, worried, and freaked out.  They look to you for stability as their parent.  I cannot fathom losing any of my children in such a violent, horrific manner.  What I don’t believe is that people should lie to or avoid the topic for their kids.  Schools will go on lockdown drills, the news will be on – it has to in my house, I work in the news.

So what do I tell them?  I tell them the truth.  This is a horrible thing, and as of right now, nobody knows what went on in that room other than someone went off the handle and killed twenty kids and seven adults.  When they ask if it could happen here you cannot lie . . . the reality is you tell them you just don’t know.  The hard and near impossible thing is to get inside this person’s head and know, for sure, why they would do something this awful.

But the last thing in the world I’d do is make them feel it’s worse.  If I was to take them out of school, hover over them, and panic they’d panic.  If they feel I feel they are safe at school, they’ll feel safe.  If they are scared I allay their fears.  If they need hugs or support they have it, unequivocally.  They will know this.

My kids come to me, their father who works in news, for information.  When 9/11 happened my daughter wanted to know why and I told her – our world has changed forever.  Some people dislike the west, our wealth, our power, our freedom.  Freedom scares them and they don’t understand and your first instinct is to attack what scares you.  I worked sources and was in DC and saw the gaping hole in the Pentagon, yet I told my kids they can’t walk in fear.  Bad things happen . . . but if you make that your focus on every thing you’ll never see the good.

When the shuttle Columbia went down I was part of the hundreds of media racing around East Texas, live in Nacadoches and blinded by soft boxes and white teeth recounting the last minutes of the astronauts.  When I felt ghoulish and dirty I called home and my wife and kids told me it was important I was there . . . it was important because they needed to know.  Not why, but what in this case, happened.

So today, while I’ll be hugging the hell out of my kids I’ll also tell them the truth.  This is scary, sure.  Could it happen at their school?  I don’t know, but I feel safe enough to send them.

We cannot go through life worrying that only the worst will happen.  But if it does, there are people who will hold you up, keep you tall, and not let you fall.  Bad things happen, but we can’t worry every moment of our lives about the worst or we will never see the best.

To close, I posted something from Fred Rogers not long ago – I leave you with his wisdom:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

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