Like many parents, I was fighting back tears when I picked up my children from school on Tuesday after the news broke about the horrors in Uvalde, Texas. I did not mention the shooting to my 9-year-old and 5-year-old. They were in such good moods, and I didn’t have it in me to ruin a gorgeous spring evening with a living nightmare.
I will discuss it with my 9-year-old sometime this week, but I am sure I will struggle to find the right words. It never gets easier for me, even after all the parents and experts I’ve spoken to over the years about the most humane and age-appropriate ways to talk to your children after mass violence like the recent gun massacre in Buffalo.
With this in mind, Times Opinion reached out to readers and asked them to share how they are talking to their children about Tuesday’s shooting, in which 19 children were killed. Below is a selection of their responses, experiences and advice.
— Jessica Grose
Managing Their Fear
‘I told her this happened far away from us’
My daughter, 7, heard a bit of NPR’s coverage. She asked if a bad man brought a gun and shot people. I said yes and turned off the radio.She said that sometimes she wished she were a cat. She loves cats.
This morning I asked her if she had any questions, and she said no. I told her this happened far away from us, and she seemed relieved.
— Steve Morris, Seattle
‘We had to tell them that their schools have lots of measures in place’
The hardest part about talking to our kids, 11 and 13, about the killing of these children and their teachers was finding a way to answer this question: “Are we safe when we go to school tomorrow?” We couldn’t say yes or no. We had to tell them that their schools have lots of measures in place to try to keep them safe. To try.
The hardest thing I have ever heard was my son saying, “I will tell you I love you every day when I get on the bus, in case I don’t come home.”
— Karen H., Montgomery County, Md.
‘I found myself avoiding being specific’
I struggled with the need to give my kids, 11 and 9, accurate information before they heard it somewhere else versus giving them so much information that it made them unable to function. My oldest already struggles with anxiety. I found myself avoiding being specific about the number of the victims or their ages and didn’t share that it was one classroom that was ambushed and slaughtered.
They wanted to know who did it and why. I told them that sometimes angry or depressed teenagers make horrible decisions. They both hugged me, and we cried for the kids and families now facing a summer from hell. We are fortunate to be able to afford a family therapist. We are religious, and I read them Scriptures this morning about evil and good and the command to love one another.
— Sarah Stoddard, Utah County, Utah
‘We tried to keep the conversation short’
My husband and I talked briefly with our son, 5. He is used to seeing guns, as we hunt for meat. He knows they are dangerous, and they are kept locked up unless we are using them.
We tried to keep the conversation short and limit our adult discussion to when he is engaged in something else or not present. I don’t think he understands exactly what happened and what it means because his experiences with real guns and shooting are limited to hunting animals, not killing people. I’m terrified and angry that he has to confront it and he’s not even in kindergarten.
— Lisa Rhoden, Kauai, Hawaii
‘We talk a lot about staying informed’
My older daughter, 16, cried this morning, which is unusual, since she’s a city kid and rides the subway to school each day, despite recent events. I told her about the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision regarding guns in New York and how the decision won’t affect them; it’ll affect us. She said she hopes to make it to 27. Or maybe study abroad and find a way to stay in a place where there are fewer guns.
We talk a lot about staying informed. She’s read a lot of U.S. history, and even though her outlook sounds bleak, she does know that, historically, things have been tough but they often get better.
— Lisa Molinaro, New York City
Protecting Their Innocence
‘This tragedy is not a teachable moment for our children’
In the past few years, I have had so many difficult discussions with my kids — 5, 11 and 15: the countless Black lives lost and the erosion in women’s access to reproductive health care. But I did not talk to them about the deaths of 19 innocent children in Texas. Not because I think they are safe but because they aren’t. And there is nothing they can do about it. I don’t believe that knowing to crouch under a desk will save them. Police training and a gun did not save the officer in Buffalo. This tragedy is not a teachable moment for our children. It is a failure of our adults.
— Susannah Cornes, San Francisco
‘Kids have lived with too much fear’
I don’t know what to say.I’m still processing it. Kids have lived with too much fear in the past two and a half years as it is. They need a reason to live and to hope. My 13-year-old is already concerned about climate change. My 10-year-old is afraid of burglars. They still wear masks to school because of Covid. It’s all too much for such young souls.
— Heather Schwager, Washington, D.C.
‘They will ask how they can make sure this doesn’t happen to them’
I just told my daughters, 5 and 7, about the Buffalo shooting. They were devastated. Today was their last day of school, and I wanted it to be a happy one.
When I tell them, and I will, they will ask how they can make sure this doesn’t happen to them or their friends. How can I tell them that they can’t? That their country does not care? That their lives are acceptable collateral? This is too much for them to bear.
— Leona Fisher, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Being Real With Them
‘To mitigate the situation through reassurance is pretty pathetic’
My kids, young teenagers, had already read the news and knew as much as I did. They are very concerned. There has already been a fatal school shooting in our town this school year, and a gun was taken from a student at their school.
Let’s be honest: Any attempt to mitigate the situation through reassurance is pretty pathetic. Our children have already discovered that America cares more about guns than kids, just like we care more about keeping bars open than schools during a pandemic. I think we are seeing the effects of our national priorities in the teen mental health crisis.
— Thomas Gerridge, Winston-Salem, N.C.
‘Try to roll when you hop the fence’
My teenagers attend a large open-area high school where I also teach. Every single time there is a shooting, I remind them not to look for me, to hop the fence and run. They say, “We know, Mom.” They dismiss the threats.
We know people who have been in more than one shooting. They are calloused from the repeated threats and images. Then we end up having the same conversation again. Last week we talked about grocery store exits. This week it was, “Try to roll when you hop the fence so you don’t hurt your ankles.”
— Emily Doepking, Simi Valley, Calif.
‘She learned not only how to hide from shooters but how to distract and run’
My daughter is 4. After a fatal high school shooting in our county earlier this school year, her preschool went through new training, and she learned not only how to hide from shooters but how to distract and run. I was rearranging her bedroom earlier this week, before the tragedy in Texas, and she asked me not to move her dresser because she wanted to be able to hide behind it if a bad guy came in. Of all the tragedies in the world right now, the one I can’t hide her from is the one we can actually stop.
— Sarah Barton, Pleasant Ridge, Mich.
‘I don’t lie to my child’
My son is in fourth grade. We told him something very terrible happened today. There was a shooting at a school. Then we waited for him to ask questions, answering each question honestly.
I don’t lie to my child, so I wasn’t able to offer him a false sense of security. If you live in a war zone, what do you say to kids? “Don’t worry: Everything is going to be OK”?
— Holly Irish, Bend, Ore.
‘I let them see and hear my emotions’
I talked about Uvalde with our daughters, 12 and 14. They saw the flag at half-staff during the drive to school Wednesday. And they view everything through the lens of TikTok, but they know my stance on gun violence. They know it’s highly political, but they don’t really understand the crisis. As we pull up to the drop-off spot, I go through a ritual: “OK, ladies, have a great day today,” and I make eye contact with each just before they close the doors.
I’ve been straightforward discussing gun violence, just as I have with other similar issues such as women’s rights and hate crimes against Asians. I let them see and hear my emotions. I’m open with the fact that there are no easy solutions but we have to try to be the voice to contribute to the change we want to see. As far as coping mechanisms: I always let them know they can come to me and their mom whenever they want to discuss any topic.
— Richard Chang, Austin, Texas
Giving Them Comfort and Confidence
‘They have to be vigilant and observant of kids who struggle’
I explained to my children, 12 and 14, that they have to be vigilant and observant of kids who struggle, who bully or who get bullied. I explained that they must never be afraid to say something or to tell someone, because it can mean the difference between life and death. I told them to treat everyone the same: with kindness. They listened and were quiet.
— Jean DeWinter, South Bend, Ind.
‘Sleep on it, sit with it, and breathe’
My twins, 13, were distressed but not surprised. We spoke about Buffalo and its racial underpinnings, as well as the internet as a motivator for shooters.
We have taught them from a young age to try to be aware of how they feel and to act in ways that help: Talk, cry, get outside and move, take a break with books or movies, eat something, do something creative, sleep on it, sit with it, and breathe. Ask for help.
Everyone in life gets their measure of sorrows, so learning how to help yourself and your friends when the hard times come is a very important skill.
— Diane Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.
‘We told him to look for the helpers’
We shared with our son, 3, that a sad thing had happened that we’d explain when he’s older. We said a prayer for God to comfort the people who are hurting. He seemed to empathize with our sadness and accepted that we’d explain more later. Like Mr. Rogers suggested, we told him to look for the helpers and seek ways that we can help.
— Katie Bucko, Santa Cruz, Calif.
‘Our normal, familiar routine grounds them’
I’m a teacher. I pointed out to my fourth-grade students that when you hear about something awful happening to someone like you, it naturally feels like it’s going to happen to you, too. But it remains so unlikely that it would. Then we went over our safety plans again, and I demonstrated how I’m able to push the heavy filing cabinet in front of our door. After, I put on birdsongs and nature sounds and let the kids choose to draw, journal, read, write or come to my table, anything they found peaceful. Then we got our learning on and started exploring two-dimensional shapes. Our normal, familiar routine grounds them.
It is absolutely gutting how much they trust, love and believe in me. I’m 65, and I’m retiring in June. I actually considered postponing retirement because these kids need anyone who can be there for them to keep being there for them.
— Beth Bertin, Teaneck, N.J.
‘The No. 1 antidote to school violence is building community’
I’m a teacher at my child’s school. She is 13. I told her that some people’s solution to school shootings is to arm teachers. We talked about how that is a nonsolution and how the real solution is to control access to guns. She agreed that arming teachers does nothing to address the mental health crisis among teens who turn to violence. We treat our public schools like trash and our students like they are worthless.
My daughter is sad but not as sad as I am. I think she is numb to these stories, having grown up with school shootings and lockdown drills. We hugged and spent time connecting. I also try to connect as much as possible with the students I teach. The No. 1 antidote to school violence is building community. Kids need to feel loved and valued. They are trying to tell us that schools have not taken care of them and they are angry.
— Kristina Ratliff, Crested Butte, Colo.
These comments have been edited for clarity and length. For more information on talking to kids about these types of tragedies, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website at healthychildren.org.
We invite you to share your advice in the comments section for how to talk to children about mass violence.
Jessica Grose writes about parenting for Times Opinion. Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak are staff editors.
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