Telling the Kids About the Shooting in Newtown

Parents everywhere wonder what to say after the tragedy at Sandy Hook.

I spent the weekend wondering if, when, or how to tell my two oldest children, ages six and 10, about what happened in Newtown, Conn., on Friday. At one point, when an ESPN anchorman started to talk about the shooting at Sandy Hook, I ordered my 10-year-old son to turn off the TV.

“Why?” he asked.

“Just because,” I snapped.

It wasn’t exactly my most inspiring parenting moment, but I hadn’t yet figured out what—if anything—to say to my kids.

At a birthday party for a classmate of my six-year-old daughter, I couldn’t look at our happy, running, dancing kids, some 20 of them, without thinking of those children and their families. Not an hour has gone by that I haven’t thought: Those could have been our children.

I asked some of the other parents at the party if they’d told their kids about Newtown, but none had. One mother said her daughter gets nightmares easily, and she knew this would be too much for her to bear. Another said her daughter saw an image on a TV screen at a restaurant and asked what it was about. When the parents started to explain, her daughter held up her hands and said, “Don’t tell me.” Every parent I talked with was hoping to keep the news from their children, but some wondered if they should go ahead and say something before they heard about it some other way.

I agreed my first grader was too young to understand it. Maybe, I thought, if I don’t make a big deal of it and if none of the other kids in her class tell her, the whole awful thing will float over her head and just disappear. She’ll never have to know.

But I worried that my son, in fourth grade, might tell her. Surely kids in his class would be talking. And so last night, when he returned from a friend’s house, I said, “I need to tell you about something sad that happened last Friday.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s about Newtown.”

I was stunned. How did he know? He said that he’d seen a pop-up news item on the computer when he was playing Club Penguin—it said that there was going to be a vigil for the 20 children in Newtown who’d died. He didn’t have many facts, so he looked at me as if he’d been holding the question inside for days, and blurted: “Why did 20 kids have to die?”

I said what I’d practiced in my head: Someone went on a rampage and hurt a lot of people with a gun. I said that sometimes these terrible things happen but that they are extremely rare. It is incredibly sad, I told him, but we are safe and don’t have to be afraid that this will happen to us because we’re more likely to be struck by lightning.

“We are so lucky we don’t live there,” he said, not realizing that today, in America, “there” could be anywhere. It could be here too. I let him keep that thought because I knew it helped him feel safe. But then he paused and said, tearing up, “I feel so sad for those kids.”

I told him I did too, and then I asked him not to say anything to Jessica, his six-year-old sister, because it could scare her. He nodded and said, “And definitely not Annie.” Annie is two-and-a-half.

A few minutes later, President Obama appeared onscreen behind us at the vigil in Newtown, and my son listened to the first few moments, then headed downstairs to bed.

Obama spoke of our nation’s collective fear and failure, asking, “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that politics are too hard?” I thought of my son’s question: Why did so many kids have to die? And then I listened as the President began slowly, gracefully, and yet firmly, to lead us out of this moment. He gave us the glimmer of hope where there could be only darkness.

But first, we have to grieve. And so he read the names.

Each one sounded just like the kids I see every day when I take my children to school. Because I can’t help myself, I keep imagining this terror happening to them. I know that “there” is really here, that “they” are really us.

Last night when I tucked my six-year-old daughter into bed, I did what those grieving parents can no longer do. I lingered longer than usual, stroking her hair, feeling her breath on my face. I know it’s possible that she will hear this awful story today at school, that a little piece of her world will shatter, as it has for all of us. And so I held her, safe and warm and innocent, as she fell asleep in my arms.