When and How Do You Start Talking to Your Kids About National Tragedies

Monday July 11, 2016

We were hosting my niece and nephew a few weeks ago, when the Orlando mass shooting happened. Dave and I had just groggily woken up, did a rudimentary check of headlines on our phones, and saw that 49 people had been murdered in another mass shooting, this time in Orlando at a gay night club. With that shock and horror fresh in our minds, suddenly a cavalcade of kids were awake, already giggling and running in circles around each other.

We tucked our phones away, giving each other “did I just read that right? Did you read that too?” eye glances before we turned to the kids and pretended nothing had happened.

We spent the day at museums, at the carousel, out for ice cream. Driving through the Castro, my niece shrieked excitedly at all the RAINBOW FLAGS THEA MARIA followed by I SEE A RAINBOW TUTU MY LIFE WILL NOT BE COMPLETE IF I DON’T GO IN THAT STORE STOOOOOP.

It makes sense not to tell a 3 year old. But, 7 year olds? Is that when you start telling them? I keenly wanted my niece’s memory of that Sunday to be the joy of that vibrant rainbow community, with the rainbow crosswalks and the rainbow flags and, yeah, rainbow tutus and rainbow feather boas. I didn’t want her memory to be that some angry guy had just killed 49 people, because of what that rainbow stands for.

When do you start telling kids about this stuff? Have you already? Do you just assume they catch it being talked about on TV and the radio, and they’ll come to you with any questions?

My first memory of a national tragedy was the 1985 MOVE bombings in Philadelphia. (When the Philadelphia PD literally dropped a bomb into a West Philadelphia row home belonging to the MOVE movement. Eleven people were killed including 5 children, and 60 surrounding rowhomes also went up in flames. Basically, an entire neighborhood on fire, live on TV.)

I was 5 at the time. The five of us watched it happen live, in stupefied terror and shock. I was scared for my cousins, because in my little head, I thought it was their neighborhood. My mom tried to assure me that they were far away from that, that it wasn’t near their home, it was closer to my cousin’s godmother’s home.

The thing is, that fire actually WAS near us and them, only a couple miles away and a few blocks from our church. When you watch news as a kid, all news is local. Maybe even hyperlocal. A 5 year old has no idea how big the world is, how many miles are between us and Dallas or between us and Orlando. Every news story could actually be about their cousin or dad.

How do you tell kids about mass shootings, without terrifying them of the possibility that at any time, a man might come storming into a room/office/concert hall and start shooting? (Which is still very much unlikely to happen to them or anyone they know.) Have any of you parents of older children had these conversations yet? How did it go? Do you think your kids hold on to these events, and walk with just a little more anxiety because of it?

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