For the rest of us, who do not live in Newtown, Connecticut, (or even those who do, but were not directly involved in today's horrors), there is also not much that can be said to make sense of something so ultimately senseless. There may be explanations, most likely heartbreaking ones, but (as I think Dave Cullen's Columbine makes clear), even having an explanation does not make tragedy make sense.
How to talk to kids about this, though? I was angered to see a New Republic post that cries, "Don't Tell the Kids a Damn Thing About Newtown."
Written by a parent in a neighboring town (uninvolved, but of course not unaffected, by the shootings), it describes this particular father's dash to his child's school, to take aside her teacher, and ask her not to say a thing about what had happened. "“It’s just that you never know when a grown-up thinks they’re being helpful, and …” "
He concludes with the closest thing to an explanation of why the kids shouldn't be told:
Here’s what we can control: as long as our children are alive, we can refuse to terrorize them with worst-case scenarios. ... I understand that there are parents in the world who have to teach their children about bomb shelters. But I don’t, not yet. My daughter is just five years old, and her school is as safe as we can make it without imprisoning ourselves in our own fear. My heart breaks for what happened 25 miles away; I’ve cried twice already today. But I’ve done it far from my children, who are still very young and, yes, innocent. So please: Don’t tell them a goddamned thing.I think this is the worst possible advice one can offer. I am not a child psychologist, or in any way expert on child-rearing. I am, however, human. I have also spent the last several years reading and watching and thinking about Mister Rogers, a man who was an expert on child-rearing and child psychology and the human condition. One of the songs that is regularly sung on the program is "I Like to Be Told." Kids do like to be told, because uncertainty is far more terrifying than even the scariest truth. Uncertainty - or deception - can be anything. A truth - well, you can process that. You can think about it, ask questions about it, find ways to live with it, hard as it may be.
The Fred Rogers Company (formerly FCI) has some advice for talking with children about tragedy, and I think it's as eloquent and useful a response to the New Republic's useless nostalgia and hand-wringing. Everyone wants children to live in a totally safe world, where nothing bad or scary or random or tragic ever happens. Everyone wants to live in that world themselves. But we don't, and because children live in the world that includes television and internet and smartphones and overhearing parents talking and playground chatter amongst children - because of that, trying to keep them hermetically sealed is impossible. Not only impossible, but quite possible harmful.
From the Fred Rogers Company's website: " You may be really surprised at how much your child has heard from others." It also mentions, at the very beginning, that children know when their parents are upset, or worried, or scared. Kids are small, not stupid or oblivious, and even after you've turned off the tv or closed the internet, it's very, very hard to keep your affect unaltered by shock, anger, grief, fear, anxiety, etc. If you pretend otherwise, you're lying to your kid and confusing her, and making it clear that scary feelings are not a topic of conversation. Kids' imaginations are, usually, quite boundless, and though they are not stupid, they don't have the experience to have the kind of sophisticated critical reasoning many adults have (or should have). One of the most chilling things I remember from the days immediately following September 11 - and those days were full of chilling things - was from someone either with Fred Rogers or Sesame Street, saying that little kids were seeing repeated footage of the towers falling - and thinking it was happening over and over again. They didn't realize that they were seeing reruns - for them, that terrifying event kept happening.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to feel like that for more than two seconds.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to think she is unprotected, unsafe, likely to have disaster occur at an moment, for more than half a second.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to worry that mom or dad or grandma can't/won't/doesn't want to protect or help them.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to feel alone and scared in a world that appears to be full of terrible things happening over and over again.
The reminder to look for the helpers is a good one. It isn't just moms and dads who want to take care of you; it's doctors and teachers and nurses and policepeople and firepeople and EMTs and pretty much 99.999% of the adult population. Even teenagers, even they want to help keep that pre-schooler from feeling sad and scared and worried, and even teenagers can and will help in an emergency.
Mister Rogers isn't going to lead you astray. He simply isn't. I have read hundreds of letters written to him, and dozens of responses from him and his staff of wonderful people who are very like him. The faith and trust people placed in him was not unfounded. The faith and trust and reassurance he gave them made a difference, in some cases a huge difference, to parents, grandparents, and children.
The link again to Fred Rogers Company's advice on speaking with kids about tragedy is here.