I started writing this post last October, after the Umpqua Community College shootings, to present some pointers for talking to kids like my 10-year-old son about school shootings. But even thinking about school shootings scared me. So I put this post away, though I followed the advice I’d discovered during my research: I limited my son’s exposure to radio and television coverage of violent events; if he asked about a specific incident, I gave him direct yet limited information and assured him the people around him worked hard to keep him safe. Mostly, though, I prayed that the need to discuss the subject in more detail wouldn’t arise for a long time.
In the few short months that followed, there was mass violence in Paris, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino. And then an “electronic threat” shut down the entire Los Angeles Unified School District. My family lives in the heart of LA, though my son, who had just turned 11, doesn’t attend an LAUSD school. Even so, he was bound to find out about the LAUSD threat, if not from me, then from someone else. I realized I could no longer put off talking to him about violence, about terrorism. About fear.
According to the Washington Post, in the first 351 days of 2015, in the U.S. there were 334 mass shootings, defined as “incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.” Mass violence against civilians gathered in classrooms, concert halls, cafes, clinics, holiday parties has become commonplace. I can’t walk into a coffee shop without wondering whether, by choosing my favorite window seat, I’ve positioned myself to be one of the first shot in an attack. I’ve taught on university campuses for years, and whenever I enter a classroom these days, I note whether I can flee into the lecture hall wings to a hidden exit, or whether there’s a single doorway for entrance and escape that will need to be barricaded. Still, I sit by the café window; I teach calmly, without dwelling on exit plans. I try not to let fear govern my actions.
This was my mindset on the morning of the LAUSD threat and school closures. As I dressed for work and watched the news, which revealed frustratingly few details, I closed my bedroom door so my son couldn’t hear the television, and I contemplated keeping him home even though his school wasn’t part of the closure.
“What if this is just a distraction?” I said to my husband. “What if they’re really going after other schools?” By “other schools,” I meant my son’s school, which my husband knew.
“His school is tiny,” he reassured me. “It’s not a target.”
I knew he was right. Our son’s school day would be normal: he would practice long division, work on his Christmas symbol presentation. To keep him home would be needlessly disruptive. It would be giving in to fear.
Still, as I drove him to school, not mentioning the LAUSD closure and changing the radio station every time it came up, I wondered whether sheltering him was just as bad as giving in to fear. He was bound to hear rumors from friends; his teachers or administrators might even address the issue. Maybe I was acting irresponsibly by pretending nothing was going on.
When he was younger, I had good reason to shield him from violence. We live in an urban area where police helicopters frequently circle overhead and burglaries are routine, which has made him sensitive to the possibility of violence. He dreams about break ins and robberies. He is the first to check that all the windows are closed when we go to sleep, the one who reminds me to lock the door when I take out the trash. I’ve never wanted to increase his fear by sharing too many details about violent events that may never affect him.
Still, the LAUSD threat made the possibility of mass violence feel imminent, unavoidable. And the reality is that mass violence in the United States has become so pervasive and random that there’s no predicting when or where it might happen next. It really could affect my son, which means he needs to know how to respond. Even so, I found myself fearful of explaining what might be expected of him, not just now, when he’s young and defenseless, but also later, when he’s a grown man. What if, someday, he is closest to a shooter? I’m terrified he would be heroic, that he would follow a primordial instinct to protect those around him. But I cannot–and will not–discourage him from protecting others. I want him to have the courage of Chris Mintz, who was shot seven times while trying to block the Umpqua Community College shooter from the classroom. I want my son to want to protect others, even while I want him to protect himself, always.
As I dropped him off and watched him tote his backpack up the school steps, I knew I couldn’t share my fears with him. They were not his burden to carry and could leave him paralyzed by fear. Governed by it. Instead, I needed to focus on how to explain this newest threat while still making him feel safe.
By the time I picked my son up after school that day, I knew more about the LAUSD threats: they had been fairly specific, about bombings and gun attacks at specific LAUSD schools. But they had also most likely been a hoax by someone testing LA’s reflexes in such situation. All this information scared me, even though it never came to fruition. I found myself anxious to tell my son everything, to make sure he knew exactly what to do if his school were attacked. But I couldn’t let my fear dictate this conversation. I had to figure out what he knew, dispel any misinformation, comfort him if he felt frightened or angry. I had to focus on his needs and best interests.
So, once he climbed in the back seat and I drove off the small campus, I casually asked him, “Anything happen today?”
His response was immediate. “There were bomb threats at the public schools. Some kids in my class went home early.”
My heart clenched. It hadn’t occurred to me to pick him up. “What did you think about that?”
“It scared me.”
I glanced at him in my rear view. “What about it scared you?”
He examined his hands, his backpack, the tear in the seat cushion. “What if whoever made the threats was trying to trick people? What if they were really gonna attack a different school?” What if they were gonna attack my school? was what he meant. Like mother, like son.
So we talked about how his school had hired extra security to make sure they were safe and had operated on a rainy day schedule, keeping everyone inside all day; about how his dad and I had decided the school was so secure that it was okay for him to stay, but if we hadn’t, we would have picked him up immediately. And how, if he ever felt scared, he could call us. “All the adults in your life,” I told him, “are here to keep you safe. Which is why you need to listen to the adults in an emergency and follow their instructions.”
As we talked, I mentioned that bad things happen in the world because unfathomable hatred exists that causes people to hurt other innocent people. But I only touched on the topic. Better to emphasize the people who loved him and wanted to protect him. Better for him to grow up feeling safe. Better for him to stay a child a while longer.
I also put off the more difficult conversation about what would happen if one day he himself faced violence. He was too rattled already, and I still wasn’t ready to imagine that possibility. But one day soon we will have that conversation. When we do, I will tell him that if he is ever faced with a dangerous situation, the most he can do is to show courage, which doesn’t mean to be foolhardy or unafraid. True courage, I will say, means you do what’s necessary despite your fear.True courage means you do what's necessary despite your fear. Click To Tweet
I will tell him that being courageous in the face of violence means being aware of his surroundings, and being watchful for someone or something that looks out of place. It means locking doors, hiding, taking cover, following the instructions of teachers, police officers, first responders who can lead him and others to safety. Maybe, when he’s older, being courageous will mean he will have to jump into action, like Chris Mintz.
Maybe one day, but, please, not now.
If you have stories about how you have talked to your own children about violence, or any words of advice, please leave them in the comments below. I would so appreciate your insights!
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Wow, Colette. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. God forbid the day ever comes when your son is put in such a horrendous situation, it will be his gut instinct–all the years from watching you and husband, all of what you’ve taught him, that inherent instinct will take over. His true character will shine through anything you could possibly say to him now. Just trust in the fact that you’ve provided him with a good home and have been solid role models. There’s really not much more you can do, IMHO. I have no doubt from what I know about you, from what I’ve read here on your site, that you’ve been open and honest. Trust in that. Above all, trust in him.
Colette, Don’t think for a minute that you are alone in your insecurities and concerns. I have friends and family with young children in Italy, France, South Africa and all across the U.S. who are attempting to make sense of our violent world. As a New Yorker, I might have been too distrustful of others as a young adult, but being hyper aware of my surroundings kept me out of harm’s way more times than I can count, and it still does here in Los Angeles. I think that all kids take comfort from seeing their parents deal with problems in a calm and controlled manner and will mimic that behavior when they are out on their own. Smart, confident kids tend to make the right choices despite what their peers may be doing. Now I admit, I don’t have kids of my own, but I sure as hell remember being one!