What to Say

“There are no words” says my wise friend Katherine, regarding the shootings in a Connecticut elementary school today.

I’m saying the F-word under my breath quite a bit here, but I am now trying to figure out what on earth to say to my first grader when I pick her up from school in a few hours. Because I’m going to have to come up with some words.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve got a few years of working as a children and youth pastor under my belt, so here are a few things I’m thinking about the coming conversation.

  1. Unfortunately, you can’t script this. You need to figure out what your kid needs to know and what your kid needs to talk about.
  2. This is a really horrible event. I don’t mean to minimize that. But, younger elementary students don’t always yet have the abstract reasoning skills to understand geography and probability. And, as adults, when we are frightened and upset we, too, loose some of our logical capacity. The 24 hour media news cycle and a generalized anxiety in our society exacerbate this. If you live close to where this happened, this is going to be a whole different conversation than if you live far away. As you think about talking to kids about this, acknowledge that it’s scary, but please, for your own peace of mind, and their’s, please remember that the probability of something like this happening in your community is relatively small. Again, I’m not trying to minimize this, but you are more likely to be hit by lightening.
  3. When you talk to your kids about this, be calm. That is the biggest gift you can give. Calmness is not a lack of emotion…we can be sad about this. Take a few deep breaths before you talk. Make sure you are not living in the animal part of your brain when you talk to your kids. Live in the part of your brain where you are attentive to your emotions, but not being reactive to your emotions.
  4. Hug your kid. Because you’ll want to do that. But, again, don’t make them unnecessarily anxious. (Don’t say, “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re safe!”)
  5. Your kids don’t need to watch too much of the news coverage. Neither do you. The paper will have more information in the morning. Turn off the radio and the TV.
  6. If your kid comes home and hasn’t heard about it yet, you don’t have to talk about this right away. Spend some time thinking and praying about how you’ll talk about it.

So then, what to talk about?

  1. The biggest thing: you are safe. Your actions as well as your words will communicate this.
  2. Let kids tell you what scares them. Listen. Take them seriously.
  3. But, don’t push kids to talk about or own fear that isn’t theirs.
  4. You can also talk about how we are sometimes sad on behalf of people we don’t even know. Teach compassion. Pray for the families of these kids. Pray for people who are scared tonight. It’s a good evening to pray with your kids.
  5. Don’t demonize. I’ll get a little theological here. I don’t believe people are bad. I believe God created us good. But we do bad things. Everyone does. If you want to teach your children this, don’t say, “A bad man did this.” And this poor young man must have been wrapped up in a horrid place in his life to do this. This is radical compassion.
  6. If there’s a conversation about death, the line I’ve used in the past is, “We are sad they are gone. Very sad. We miss them (their families miss them). They are OK. God is taking care of them.” If that works for you, feel free to use it.

Prayers, friends. And peace, deepest peace. That might be my best bit of advice: abide in God’s peace while you have this conversation with your kids. You will be safe. Your kid will be safe. God is taking care of you.

6 Responses to “What to Say”

  1. Susie Says:

    Thanks for this Erica.

  2. Susan Says:

    You are wise and wonderful.

  3. Christine Says:

    Thank you Erica for this. I have printed it out so I can answer any of Madison’s questions about this horrific event in Connecticut today.

  4. Carla Schemper Says:

    Almost 40 years of doing therapy with kids (and adults) usually around some sort of trauma in their life, and, yes, dear daughter of mine, in my opinion you nailed it. An authentic, non-anxious presence: possible in the face of this sort of tragedy when we really know the ultimate truth that always, in life and in death, we are ALL held in His loving hand. ALl shall be well, and all shall be well.

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