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Should We Tell the Children?

Should We Tell the Children?

Talking to your kids about the Connecticut school shooting.


“Did you tell your kids?”

That was the question on the lips of every parent I met in the days after the Newtown shooting. Some had shielded their kids at first and then explained what had happened when their children saw a headline or watched the news. Others had told their kids about the horrific murders before their kids heard about it from someone else. In some families, the kids themselves had brought up the topic, after hearing the news from friends.

My husband and I opted not to mention anything about the shooting to our young children. We didn’t turn on the news, and when the newspaper came I quickly whisked away the front page so my kids wouldn’t encounter it. Many of my friends thought we were being overly-protective, but I think our reluctance to mention the tragedy sprang from two very different – and very Jewish – values.

On one hand, I want my children to grow up with a sense that the world is a good place. It was hard enough for me to cope with the news, and I didn’t think my children would be able to hear the news without it making them suspicious and fearful. One day I want my children to know about it, but I was willing to delay that.

This debate made me realize that the way I look at my home is subtly different from the way some of my friends and neighbors do. During the two thousand years since our holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, each individual Jewish home is a little “mini” Temple, a mikdash me’at. This concept has made me act consciously as a gate-keeper; I no longer necessarily allow every conversation that’s taking place in the public arena to enter our home.

Moreover, when they do learn about the shooting, I want to be ready, not shocked and teary as I was when I first heard about it. While we cannot control world events, we can decide how we respond to them. When the time comes to discuss Newtown, I hope to be able to channel my kids’ emotions into positive, constructive avenues such as donating charity, learning Torah, and praying in memory of the victims.

Dr. Samantha Bender, a Maryland-based child psychologist who has a experience working with at-risk children, agrees that young children are best shielded from extremely disturbing news. Increasing children’s stress levels can be painful, and if we’re going to do so, we should ask ourselves why and what we hope to accomplish. “Parents should ask themselves: does my desire to talk about this come from my own anxiety?”

If young children do find out about this or other catastrophes, Bender says, “It’s best to give them a sanitized version.” Keep descriptions very simple, and stress the positives in the situation. In the case of the Newtown shooting, this might be the heroism of the teachers, and the fact that the school officials’ actions saved the lives of over 600 children who were unhurt in this tragedy. And if we choose to tell our children, we also have to help them learn to put the news into perspective. “Point out that the media focuses on the worst case” when it’s in the news, Dr. Bender notes. Stress the fact that other schools around the country had a normal day.

One exception to this advice of being circumspect about the details of tragedies, Bender notes, is when events might impact children personally. In the case of Newtown, the shooter apparently suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, and families of children with Asperger’s thus face a unique challenge. They need to prepare their kids for the fact that some people might judge them negatively after this tragedy. (For some families, too, this tragedy might serve as a reminder to ensure that kids with Asperger’s are not isolated socially, and that they’re getting help with social skills.)

If children do find out about tragedies, the American Academy of Pediatricians echoes this advice: keep discussions short, and stress the positive even in bad situations. They also recommend channeling kids’ emotions towards something positive too, such as giving charity or working to help victims. This helps to manage their anxiety, and gives them hope that the world still contains goodness.

It also echoes the Jewish view that one way to respond to difficulties is by challenging ourselves to find ways we can help. For children especially, who have a simplistic view of the world, responding to evil by doing good things helps preserve their belief in fairness. When the tragedy is far away, we can still help by doing good deeds in honor of the victims. We can also channel our impulse to help others closer to home, by finding people in our own communities who can use our support.

December 18, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 23

(13) Anonymous, December 20, 2012 3:06 PM

Please understand that more often than not, individuals with Asperger's Syndrome are VICTIMS of violence/bullying, as opposed to being perpetrators. Also, Aspergers Syndrome is not certainly not a disease. It is a developmental disability.

Debbie, December 25, 2012 8:12 AM

Agree - let's not confuse anyone

Agree with you that aspergers is a developmental difference and not a disease. Einstein and many others have/had this. The perpetrator had access to guns, and even gun training via his own mother. This was the problem. Without these, the outcome might have been so different. Sending prayers to all the families.

(12) Miriam, December 20, 2012 6:55 AM

in Israel news is circulated proactively

In Israel the approach to this kind of news is very proactive. Perhaps because everyone is more connected, so the news is always related to you (even if it's in a community different from yours - score one for achdus). Teachers talk about current events so that the kids hear it from a mature source, and as olim chadashim we've learned to do the same.

(11) susannah garbutt, December 20, 2012 5:33 AM

telling the children

Dear, I'm with Anny Matar re telling your children, in a simple factual way that they can understand. Children do come into contact with topics they have not heard about at home, and may be unprepared. I remember being like this in primary school. Our parents warned us of a paedophile in the area - as a child it was a mystery to me, and the word paedophile was not used, but because we were told carefully and about the facts, we accepted the knowledge calmly and did not get alarmed about it. Other topics such as pubertal changes came up when I was in primary school. And the death of a fellow student - that was distressing because I knew none of the facts - and it grews in my imagination because there was no knowledge or understanding about this death. And different theories (by the students) flew around the school, leaving me confused and ignorant even now (am 63). Explained with skill and care, children need to hear about this tragic incident from their parents, not first at school in the playground. If they have questions, their parents can anwer them simply and honestly. You can't wrap them up in cotton wool. It's amazing how children can handle dreadful events when it's handled properly, and they do need to hear the adult version before they hear it anywhere else, so they will be prepared with the facts and not stories and explanations created in ignorance by fellow students trying to 'explain' the crime and tragedy. Shalom

(10) Ma. del Consuelo Romero, December 19, 2012 3:29 AM

The media

My daughter is so careful about tv programs; they have videos proper for children and never videos related with violence. I think that nowadays children and young people are exposed to too many violence; among other bad things¡

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