We told our 6-year-old son about the shooting at Sandy Hook the Monday morning after it happened. In a conversation that had me reapplying my mascara, my husband gave him the bare facts: A guy went into an elementary school in Connecticut—far from here—and hurt a lot of kids and some teachers. It's a very sad, sad thing. But you are safe at your school.
"What happened to the guy who did it?" our son asked quietly.
"How did he die? I mean, how do you know he's dead?" He looked hard at my husband, daring him to fib.
And so in a twist I didn't anticipate, my son heard about suicide for the first time. Still, after a moment, he hugged us both tightly, then ran off to talk to his brothers about the Polar Express party they were having at school.
It was a short, straightforward, and impossibly hard conversation to have with a 6-year-old. It didn't help that as I watched him react, I knew the parts we didn't share: Those children were the exact same age as him, and they did not survive.
All around the country, parents are having similar conversations. Within hours of the shooting spree, articles began popping up with suggestions and tips for how to discuss the tragedy with children. But for many people I talked to, the question wasn't so much "how" to share, but "why." Why should we expose our children to this evil?
There are no hard and fast rules for this sort of conversation, of course. Each child and each family is different, and parents much discern how best to approach any news topic with young ones. But for Christians, the "why" should be easy: It's only when we begin to understand the full brokenness of this world, and ourselves, that we can truly understand the fullness of the saving grace of Christ.
I know a lot of parents who avoided the conversation because of their own fears or inability to process it. Yet, parents have to be the ones to introduce children to the reality of evil. If we wait until they learn about it in school, we've already lost the information war and, perhaps, our children's trust. If Mom and Dad only assure their children that everything is okay and always will be, but then the children see and hear the opposite at school, it isn't long before Mom and Dad are too out of touch to help them face real life as it happens.
Do I think we should plop our little ones down for a Friday night viewing of Schindler's List? Of course not. I haven't seen that movie, or read A Thousand Splendid Suns for that matter, but I still know about the Holocaust and the plight of women in Afghanistan. Similarly, we didn't expose our son to any news coverage of Sandy Hook—not even NPR, the standard station in our van. It's possible to give our kids information without inundating them with images or stories that are too graphic for them to process.
However, if we aren't careful to be the ones to disciple them through their early encounters with evil, their peers will inevitably step into that role. And surely no parent thinks that is a good idea.
We also told our oldest son about the tragedy because we want him to grow up with a heart of compassion. How could he do that if we sheltered him from circumstances that call for compassion?
After the Newtown shooting, I returned to my job at a local high school for the last day-and-a-half of the semester. Not once during those hours did I hear the teenagers in my room talk about the tragedy. Of course, teenagers get a bad rap for their selfishness, but I suspect this wasn't the problem. I think the students didn't speak of it not because they didn't care, but because they didn't know what to say. As the adults in their lives, we could have set a different tone for them. Even simple acts like wearing a ribbon, or—as my husband did in his classroom—putting up a few websites that kids could go to for information on how to help. They still would have talked mostly about exams, and winter formal, and Christmas break. But they might also have begun thinking and talking about people outside of their comfortable bubble.
Our children are tomorrow's adults. In the case of the students who come through my classroom, the shooter was only a few years older than them. A few short years ago, he sat in a similar room, listening to similar conversations. In the case of my son, the victims were his peers. This tragedy brushes our children's lives, whether we want it to or not. It won't be the last one that does either. How will they know how to respond to future tragedies, if we don't disciple them through the ones of their youth? If we want to raise compassionate, Christ-honoring leaders, the last thing we should do is hide the truth of the world's brokenness under a bushel of fear.
Monica Selby is a freelance writer and member of the Redbud Writers Guild. She has written for Her.meneutics about teacher strikes, antidepressants and dads. Connect with her at her blog (www.inthewhisper.com), on Facebook, or on Twitter.
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