Written by Sheena Hill
I didn’t tell my 8 year old about the Sandy Hook shooting last week. It was a difficult decision: I thought about it a lot; I read the expert recommendations for what parents should say; and I cried thinking of the look on my sweet daughter’s face if I did tell her. I home school and we do not own a TV, so I felt confident that she would not hear about it from any other source. After hemming and hawing all weekend, I decided on Monday night, while she was so innocently telling me about a character in a book she is reading. I could not forever crush her innocence in one fell swoop and I don’t regret withholding the news for now.
Hearing about the incident would be the first real encounter with “badness” in her immediate world. She knows about evil and tragedy--because we are Jews and our holidays mostly celebrate times throughout history when we were persecuted and near extinction, yet were miraculously victorious over our foes. But her knowledge of these things is quite abstract and the reality of such times seems far away. I asked her once, what she knew of the Holocaust and she said, “Hitler was a bad man and he tried to hurt a lot of people.” Well, that is certainly the gist of it, but I know that in time, she will become privy to more detailed images of the true horrors of genocide. Still, I have hoped since her birth that she gets to wait as long as possible before she discovers all the facts.
I truly believe that it is my charge to preserve her innocence. It is my job as her parent. Archeologists have found that he reason we evolved into such intelligent beings is due to a long childhood to develop cognitive ability and gain mastery of skills. Additionally, she has such a pure heart and I don’t want knowledge of the bad things in the world to erode that sweetness. It is no secret that it is harder to be trusting and compassionate when you are scared or worried about vulnerability.
Last night, she chose a book about Ruby Bridges for her bedtime story. As I opened the book, I felt my heart sink and tears well up in my eyes. The story showed how families committed to integration n Louisiana in 1960 were harassed, taunted and threatened by families who did not agree with integrating the local elementary school. It told how Ruby attended school all by herself each day, because no other parents wanted their children to learn with her. I was afraid to read share this historical account with my bi-racial little one. I said to her, “This story tells of some scary things that happened to Ruby, and I don’t want to read to you about them.” She informed me that she was glad things weren’t like that anymore and that people feel differently now. I started crying, thinking of the recent examples I could share with her to disprove her naïve perspective. I explained to her that I was afraid that hearing about such bad things would make it harder for her to be sweet and compassionate, kind and loving. She scooted really close to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mama, the more I hear about bad things, the more I will be motivated to do good in the world.”
I realized that I cannot ultimately protect her from everything. I need to prepare her for the world, even though it is often a scary and confusing place. If I want her to truly be able to stand up for justice and righteousness and to have the strength to resist being discouraged, I need to provide her with the tools to protect her own pure heart. Simply having a pure heart alone will not protect her and it will not help others.
So what can we do to prepare our children to live in the world while still striving to protect their innocence:
- Prepare for the conversation by gathering as much information on the topic as possible. This prepares us to answer potential questions and create a complete picture for the child. Find some children’s books on the topic, so the child can learn more about the topic at their own pace and feel comfortable asking any necessary follow up questions. Always start by asking what they know about a given topic, to gauge what they have heard elsewhere or things that may be confusing or misinformed.
- Always start by asking what they know about a given topic, to gauge what they have heard elsewhere or things that may be confusing or misinformed.
- Give them full stories--just stating facts, with complete information and without lying or adding things we wish were true--by providing age-appropriate details. Start by identifying and understanding our own emotions and knowing when we will need to separate them from the topic, so the child can have space for their own reaction and not need to comfort their parent.
- Start by identifying and understanding our own emotions and knowing when we will need to separate them from the topic, so the child can have space for their own reaction and not need to comfort their parent.
- At the same time, be honest about our emotions with our children, so they can know that their emotions are normal and allowed. Be “unafraid” of whatever reaction the child has and validate their emotions; don’t not “shush” or minimize their emotions. Create a safe, supportive environment where the child can feel and express their emotions. Remember, some children will not have strong reactions immediately, so allow whatever emotions come naturally to them, but be prepared for the emotions to emerge after the child has spent some time processing the news.
- Allow for questions and answer them honestly and directly. (It is okay to return to the conversation numerous times as needed.)
- Reassure them and discuss how the news impacts them personally.
- Make our homes a safe space from the chaos of the world; a place where our children can always be themselves, have real conversations, and get their needs met.
In her appeal to parents and teachers to begin teaching children as young as 4 or 5 about slavery, Kim Pearson reminds us why we can’t just ignore the bad things when we paint the world for our children, “through omission, an implicit message is being sent that this troublesome portion of our history is not important and that old atrocities should be buried quietly with those who suffered through them. Moreover, omission does not provide our young people the option of using the mistakes of the past to continue to build a brighter future.” Therefore, even though it is challenging for me, I cannot simply shy away from telling my daughter about certain things that make me uncomfortable or upset. Though I chose not to tell her about the lives lost at Sandy Hook, I owe it to my daughter to be honest with her about some of the horrors inherent in being human, instead of insisting on always keeping her sheltered. Anything less would be unfair to both of us, as well as the world I’m confident she will use her pure heart to build in the future.
About the author:
Sheena Hill is a busy mom and a certified Parent Education Specialist. As the founder of Parenting Works, she empowers and inspires parents by designing and facilitating education focusing on gentle discipline, communication, co-parenting and emotional intelligence. Her super power is helping families enhance family relationships and mitigate power struggles. She blogs for KidPointz.com and is the author of Purposeful Parenting.