Tag Archives: parents

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.”

Once More into the Breach

My girls…Hannah on the left

Four.

That’s the number of assignments missing.

Last year, in the weeks after losing my wife and then at the start of the 7th grade year for my middle child, I had to contend with the fact that she was failing 7th grade.  The maddening thing about that was the fact she wasn’t failing due to test grades or because she didn’t know the material it was because she wasn’t turning in her assignments.

This year was going better, I thought.  Until last night.

Let me preface this with the events of the week:
For the last few months I’d been working with the Special Projects Executive Producer to put together a special on bullying. I had to work late a few days, but nothing completely horrendous.  Last night was one of those days, so the meals were simple and the days were long but we were still managing.  This week started with Abbi dropping her iPhone4, something she got as a reward and gift (for Christmas), in the sink…while getting ready for school…with the water running.  Yeah.  Next, the bowl of rice, the hair dryer, all of it.  No signal, no sign of life.

Then, tonight, just 18 hours before the parent/teacher conferences that we’re supposed to have tomorrow afternoon, my middle child, Hannah, comes to me complaining about her Social Studies teacher.
“She keeps changing the assignments and I don’t get them and then it’s all messed up and I have bad grades…”
I saw the tears . . . panicked tears, not sad ones, and asked “how many assignments, Hannah?”
Silence.
“How . . . MANY!”
“four.”
Did your teacher really change all those assignments or did you just not turn them in?!
Again, silence.
“Hannah!”
“I just didn’t turn them in.”
“…and you decided now . . .just before conferences is when to tell me?!  Why, because you screwed up, couldn’t fix it and then figured you’d better come clean right before so it’s not as bad as last year?!”
Again . . . silence.

Before you all come to me with chastising comments, I get that I screwed up as well.  I’d fallen behind looking at the Edline (that’s the weekly update of grades from the school) and was looking instead at her planner and what it said was due.  I asked about the homework.  I looked to see if she needed help.

Here’s the thing . . . it’s Social Studies!  It’s not chemistry.  It’s not trigonometry.  There are no covalent bonds and no angle of incidence.  There aren’t any earthshattering concepts in the homework she didn’t do!  It’s got to be one of the easiest classes . . . because every question has an answer you can look up.  Hell, in today’s world, if you can’t find it in the textbook there has to be a Wikipedia page that you can fudge the answer from, I would think.  So to throw away grades and now have an F in your class is just ridiculous.

I began, at the beginning of the year, to think maybe Hannah was being bullied.  All the missing assignments, the bad grades, the going up to her room . . . I wondered if she was like the kids I’d interviewed for this special.  But none of her friends, teachers, other parents, nobody thought it was happening.  We watched the bullying special and I even pressed her on it.

There are few things that matter to Hannah enough that she will turn things around.  She’d promised and even told her grandparents she’d make the effort to get great grades.  My warning to her at the beginning of the school year was that she’d leave the school.  We aren’t making a lot of money, not for a 5-person family and with no money in savings.  So private school, though I know it’s a major expense, isn’t something I take lightly and I debate its value in the long run anyway, given the number of weeks we spend pinching pennies to get by.  I already told her that if she’s not going to take advantage of the education then she may as well fail at a school that is free and not killing me financially.  It’s true.  I won’t pay for her to go to the same school two years in a row.

She looked at me in a panic saying she didn’t want to change schools, that she’d fix it.  I looked at her and was less than sympathetic.  She said this last year.  We didn’t have a period that didn’t have at least one assignment missing.  I don’t have the energy or time to go through that again.

I’m normally a father who sticks to his guns.  When Abbi failed as a little kid to care for her toys I made Abbi give her dolls to the Salvation Army Hospital.  When Noah couldn’t behave I took away all his Thomas trains as a kid.  Hannah’s grandfather convinced me to let her finish and see how the year ended.  For his sake I did it.

Now . . . I understand that I messed up by not tracking her progress in the last four weeks.  I did it in the first 8, not this last four.  This is what happens when I don’t.

I left her evening by telling her I’d have to think about whether she’d continue at her school.  Until then, I took the only thing she seems to care about: her guitar.  No choir, no band, no practice, no strings, nothing.  Done.  When the grades return, it comes back.

Now I have to decide what to do about the school.  It’s times like this I really miss that other person . . . not for the emotional reasons, for the practical ones.  A united front, the Mom with Dad to help and carry on the work . . . that’s what I wish I had.  But I don’t, there’s nothing changing that, and I have to carry on.

It’s just hard to know that it’s not just her failing . . . it’s that I am, too, and I don’t know how to fix it, either.

It Just Takes One Person . . .

My Entire, extended family, including my brother, sister-in-law and my parents
By Hunny Bee Photography, Amy Renz-Manoucheri Photographer

I have four kids.  That is no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog, but the statement is more about the worries and futures that weigh on my shoulders than it is just sheer numbers.  I never realized what an impact two people raising kids had until I was doing it alone.  It’s not the meals, or the laundry or chores . . . none of that is the main impact.  They all fall together into a big gelatinous mountain of worry, sure.  The fact is I look at all four of them and wonder what impact the last year and next will have on all their lives.

When you have that partner, the one person that you trust above all others, you aren’t alone in this.  The world isn’t working against you – or at least you don’t feel like it is.  When my oldest daughter would get sick Andrea or I would walk in, take her temperature, run the humidifier, or just plain hold her on our lap and put our hand gently on her hair and make her feel secure and cared for.  While I or Andrea would do that, the other would care for the other three.  Maybe give Noah a hug or high-five for a great math test.  Maybe read Sam’s story for his English class.  Perhaps listen to Hannah play some new song she’s played on the guitar.

But those days are over.  I find myself constantly saying “you’re all talking at once, do it one at a time!”  I can see the impact that having to do this on our own has had.  I’ve discussed Noah’s behavior before.  It’s ebbed and flowed.  There was a big lull in the lack of self-control.  I took the time to garner some attention on him and listen to him and do the things he needed along with helping his siblings.  But there are only so many hours in the day and so much attention I can muster before the laundry needs done and the beds need changing and the breakfast and dinner for tomorrow need to be addressed.  It’s not a simple system.  Let one fall the others pile up behind it.

Add to that the fact that, no matter how much good the Diocesan grief counsellors thought they were doing, they have set those two boys back – with one fell visit.  It’s funny because a year ago the boys were doing amazingly well, considering.  We’d established some semblance of a routine.  They had stability with my parents helping us get back on our feet.  Even when they returned in the Fall to school, it wasn’t easy, but they were doing really well.  Talking to counesllors, and even their doctor, they informed me that the grief was . . . well, grieving.  The boys were doing what everyone should do.  They were sad they lost their Mom, adjusting to the new life, and we were starting to look to the chapters ahead, not dwelling on the ones we’d already read.  Sure, you can’t tell a story without the motivation and history to back them, but you look back, you don’t dwell there forever.  That’s what my boys were doing.

But that one moment, the day they were forced to talk about everything that happened the day they lost their Mom, in sordid, painful detail, they both – Sam and Noah – came home like their clocks had been set back by months.  Noah started picking at his sister.  Sam started closing down and spending all his time upstairs again.  They annoyed each other until Noah or Sam would lose it and hit or kick each other.  No, they weren’t perfect before, but they were now at a point that even the grief hadn’t created.

My point here is not to blame someone for the problems.  I know it sounds that way, and I’m still a little angry about the whole episode, but the reality is that I worry about being just one person.  I worry about what example the kids get.  Abbi had 16 years with her Mom.  Hannah had 11.  The boys had almost 8.  I remember a lot from that year, but not as much as I’d like.  I know that major events, happy, sad, traumatic even get burned into your consciousness.  I get that.  But it weighs on my mind that, first, they won’t remember their Mom, not much, and not the woman that they should remember but the one that was coming back from depression and sadness.  They also don’t have that soft, gentle influence that only a Mom can have.  Before all the women I know and women reading tell me that they’ll always be there for the boys, I know that.  I understand and appreciate it.  The thing is there isn’t the constant, daily influence, though.  There’s just something about that second, differing opinion and outlook that evens out a person.  I can try all I want to give that to my sons and daughters but it’s not there.

Some psychiatrist on one of those daytime programs the other day said something about what influence you want to have on your kids.  “Would you want your kids to date you?  Would you want them to grow up to be you?”  They were hoping to spark some deep discussion in :30 second soundbites, I get it, but the thing is, I think their questions are off-point.  I worry not about whether I am the example of what they should be, I worry about whether I’m pushing them to be what they want to become.  That’s a big difference.  I don’t think any parent, unless they’re insanely narcissistic, wants their kids to grow up to be just like them.  While the psych doc on the box proclaimed that “your kids see if you kiss your wife but she’s still sad and wonder why . . . and whether you caused that sadness” it’s not about that.  They don’t get it. 

For me, at least, it’s about making sure they live up to their own expectations and potential.  I can see glimmers of what they want and should be and prod them along, sure, but I cannot be the end-all, be-all for what they think life is about. 

A friend was talking to me today about how I was lucky.  I got to meet the love of my life.  I got that “fairy tale” ending and got it right the first time.  The funny thing is, I don’t know if I got it right.  Sometimes you’re alone, the world swirling around you, and it just takes one person – the one person out there who sees through the melee and joins you in its center, without ever seeing the damage being inflicted around you.  It just takes that one person.  Andrea was mine.  I had given up – at 21 years old, yes given up – and figured that I’d just turn around and ride with the current.  It was at that moment that Andrea, who I thought wanted nothing to do with me, entered my life.  It was never the same.  It had amazing points.  It had horrible points.  But it was there, together.

So what example do I want my kids to take?  It just takes one person, sure.  But make sure it’s the right person.  I could have dated a string of women, tried to get through the insanity by grabbing everyone I could.  In the end, though, I found a love that would hold my hand and understand.  Together, we faced the world.  What I don’t want the kids to feel is that they’re doing this alone.  I don’t want my daughter to think that she’s taking care of her siblings and doing it all alone.  I don’t want my sons to think that the “guy’s perspective” is the only perspective. 

It’s easy to think that you just need to grab love where you can find it.  The whole “Love the One You’re With” idea, but I want my kids to know that they shouldn’t “settle.”  It’s OK to experiment, to date, to see what your likes and dislikes are.  I found my so very early that it burned out too soon.  But I’m not alone.  I don’t lean on my kids, I want them to lean on me.

So tonight, after signing the detention slip for Noah’s acting out I had to try my hardest to give him the best advice, channeling my wife’s thoughts the best I can and letting him know how much harder he’s going to have to work.  Telling him how kids act during PE games and sporting events when they play each other.  Telling him “it’s alright to get mad.  Nobody’s going to fault you for being angry.  You can’t act out on that.  You can get mad, yell, heck even kick at the dirt.  But not someone else, no matter how bad you think they’re acting.”

I worry about the example I’m giving my children.  But I don’t want them to grow up to be like me.  I want them to grow up to be better than me.  It just takes one person to make it happen.  They’re lucky – they each have four already.