The horrifying events in Newtown, Connecticut, have cast a pall over this holiday season. As parents ourselves, we can barely take in, or comprehend, the loss so many other parents have suffered. We are pained as we see the pictures of those young children, and think of the impact not only on their parents but on their siblings as well. The cruelty of the loss is unthinkable. Yet, we must think about it.
The media have been filled with people talking about how to talk to your children about this. Much of what has been said sounds academic and theoretical with a strong focus on reassurance. Tell children how rare something like this is; assure them that school is a safe place; let them know that you are here to protect them. That all sounds pretty unrealistic given the fact that these events no longer seem so rare, and school no longer seems like a totally safe place. More upsetting to us as parents is the realization that we are not able to protect our children from many things in life.
Almost from the moment of conception we are trying to protect our children from harm. During pregnancy we are careful about what we eat and drink. We give much thought to what and how we should feed our babies. We read books and manuals about physical and emotional development, all with the goal of providing the best for our children and avoiding anything that might be harmful.
As soon as children are beyond our physical care we give thought to how far to let them expand their boundaries while still keeping them safe. From letting them walk down the street without holding our hand, to climbing on the jungle gym, to going to school alone, and on through all the stages of growing independence we measure how much is safe, how much is not. The challenge is always to balance their striving and need for independence with our responsibility to keep them safe.
The other theme pervading everything that has been said and written about this tragedy is the search for a reason, or understanding of motive. Experts on those who commit mass violence have been interviewed to explain to us why this happens, why these individuals do this. It is a human reaction to look for explanations of things we are unable to explain. It is as if we find a reason that will make the irrational rational. Almost as if understanding it will enable us retroactively to stop it from happening.
Finally, and what we have heard about most, is the prevalence of guns, the need for gun control laws, and of course, the extent of violence in our society, particularly in the media. This in part reflects a need to assign blame, but also, again, a search for understanding. Perhaps this is a constructive part of that search, since it may point the way to things we could try to have some control over, like violent video games and gratuitous violence in the movies.
But of what help is all this in the challenge of talking to our children? Actually, it is our awareness of these underlying themes that can be of the most help. The idea I kept listening for over the past ten days was “listen to your children,” and finally one person interviewed spoke of it. “Listen to your children” means to try to hear what it is that concerns them – if anything – before deciding what kind of story to tell them. That may seem obvious but it is more difficult than it may seem.
What interferes with hearing our children are our own emotional reactions to the themes I have described. The recognition of our own inability to protect our children in the most profound way from life’s events can be overwhelming. We know there are things from which we can’t protect them, just as we cannot reassure them that we won’t die. So we also know that we cannot reassure them that this could never happen to them. This is very painful to experience as a parent.
In the same way, we can’t explain to them why this happened in a way that makes sense, because it makes no sense to us. This is also difficult for us as parents since we expect to be able to explain things to them and they expect that of us. Also, we often use explanation as a method of reassurance.
If we are aware of the feelings aroused in us by these limitations, we can put them aside and listen instead for our children’s feelings and concerns. Very often they are different from our own. The way children react to an event like this is connected to where they are both in age and developmental stage. A child focused on separation issues may worry most about going somewhere without mom. Another child in the throes of sibling rivalry may focus all her concerns on her sister’s well-being.
Such concerns are often not expressed directly in conjunction with conversations about what has just happened. We have to listen for them at other times and in the context of other events. But in the more general terms of how we talk to our children, our awareness of our own feelings and limitations can help us strike that difficult to achieve balance between unrealistic reassurance and unrealistic alarm.
The reassurance for us is our children’s resilience, and their preoccupation with the more usual pleasures and pains of daily life. Especially during a holiday!