Skip to content

After Another School Shooting, Doing My Best to Parent in a Scary World

Since last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of gun violence in our country. This isn’t a typical topic for me, but of all the things that we worry about as parents, this should probably be among the top of our list.

My 4-year-old daughter, Cee, is full of questions, and she looks to me to help her understand the world. Why was the moon was so red on the night of the lunar eclipse? How do our eyes work to let us see? Can Mary Poppins really fly? These are a few of the things I’ve tried to explain to her lately.

There are heavier questions, too. When a friend’s bike was stolen last week, Cee wanted to know why a person would take something that belonged to someone else. A day or two later, our family witnessed a car accident while we ate dinner outside of a restaurant. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but when the driver at fault emerged from his car, he was clearly intoxicated and a little aggressive. “He’s being mean,” Cee said. “He should really try to be helpful.” We left the restaurant soon after, but she’d already seen those interactions, cataloging them into her reference list of observed human behaviors.

It isn’t easy to explain to a young child why someone would steal or drive drunk. It isn’t easy, but I do my best to find the words. After all, I consider it my job as a parent to help my daughter calibrate her moral compass as she gradually learns more about the world. But when I contemplate explaining a school shooting to her, I am at a loss for words.

And so, I was relieved to be able to shield Cee from the news of last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, just an hour down the road from our town. I kept the radio off on that day and the days that followed, and I saved discussion of it for hushed adult conversations after bedtime.

I am particularly shaken by this shooting, though, in part because it feels so close to home for us. Roseburg is a small town, and some of the most seriously wounded victims were transported to our better-equipped hospital. Cee didn’t realize it, but those victims touched her life when she heard especially loud sirens on the playground of her preschool that morning. I always tell Cee that when we hear sirens, it means that someone is on their way to help another person in need. But I also know that she’s beginning to understand that there is a less rosy side to every emergency, that not all injuries are accidents and that they can’t all be fixed.

Last week’s shooting also feels close to home because I teach at our local community college. In fact, after I picked Cee up from preschool on the day of the shooting, she and I and her baby brother dropped by campus to visit a colleague who was giving Cee some hand-me-down clothes. Later, when I heard the news, I realized that if the shooter had attended college in our county, I would have put my kids in harm’s way that day. And on any day, if the shooting had been on our campus, it could have just as easily been my colleagues, my students, or even me, huddled in fear in a classroom with a gun pointed towards us.

Thinking about this, my first impulse was to vow never to take my kids onto campus again and maybe to only teach online courses from now on. But quickly, I recognized the futility of this attempt to protect my family. If that’s my strategy, then I’d better also avoid shopping malls, theaters, grocery stores, and of course, my children’s schools. I can’t promise my kids that something like this won’t happen to us.

At Cee’s age, she’s too young to be burdened with this darkest side of human nature. I want her mind to be filled with the wonders of the natural world, the safety of her family and home, and the kindness of friends. As for the more difficult realities of life, I want her to be able to ease her way into grappling with those, facing them in little bits so that they don’t shake her sense of security and her faith in humankind too much. The magnitude of the problem of gun violence in our country feels far too big for a little girl to grasp.

Cee will be a kindergartner next year, though, and I know that she’ll start hearing about events like these from her peers and older kids. It’s hard enough to face these tragedies myself, but being a parent means each one weighs a bit heavier. This is the reality of parenting in America today. It means having to find the words to make sense of the senseless for my children. It means coming to terms with the fact that a shooting like this could touch our family more closely, that we or our children could be victims. Worse still, one of our children could be the shooter. Everyone involved, after all, is someone’s child.

As I prepare to have these tough conversation with Cee, I’m thinking about some of the core points I will want to convey. The first is that we should grieve for those who died unnecessarily. We should feel despair and helplessness and anger. We should be shaken to our cores. It is the honest, human response, and we don’t want to become numb to tragedies like these.

Second, every tragedy is a chance to remind ourselves and our kids to be kind to one another, to open our hearts and ears to those who feel alone or misunderstood. It is up to us to build communities where we all take care of each other.

And finally, I think we all have to resolve to do better. We have to find a way to prevent this from happening again and again and again. If, as parents, we just stand by and hope that it won’t happen to us, then what kind of example are we setting for our children?

How do you talk to your kids about gun violence?

24 Comments
  1. Great post. It is very hard to talk to your kids about issues like that. Once you open to them and tell them what’s happen they ask WHY. And to be honest it’s getting hard for us to understand WHY

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  2. It’s really scary parenting in today’s world. This is a very deep post. I’m British so I can’t really comment on the successive gun violence in America but I sincerely hope your government and NRA could reach a compromise to halt the violence.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  3. Love this. I haven’t had to talk to my 4 year old about this yet but when I do I will not have any words.. It really is a scary world. I worry for my kiddos every day.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  4. maggie #

    When my daughter was in kindergarten last year, one of her classmates was murdered by an older cousin and dumped in a ditch. The kids all knew about it because there was an Amber alert (original statement was that the child had been kidnapped). We explained what happened, and to our surprise, she processed it much better than adults do. She instinctively understood that people can sometimes be evil, and sometimes be stupid; just like the characters in her cartoons. A couple of month later, we were talking about motorcycles and safety after watching someone zip around cars on the highway, and she related the ability to kill with a vehicle with the ability to kill on purpose. Having these conversations with kids at a young age helps them internalize that they have to be in control of themselves, because mistakes can kill, death is permanent, and there is no undo button.
    We can’t save our children from the actions of others. Our first fear when we hear about these is that we don’t want to be the parent of one of the victims. But we can do nothing really to stop that. We should focus instead on never becoming that parent who has to apologize because their child took someone else’s life. If every parent raised a child who didn’t kill, be it with a gun or a car or drugs, we wouldn’t have to worry about any victims.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  5. ayce #

    My son is too young to discuss these issues now, but I worry about it all the time. As a parent we want to protect our children in a world which feels increasingly dangerous and volatile. If our country didn’t make changes following the shootings at Sandy Hook, then what will it take? I hate to be pessimistic because I want my son and his peers to grow up in a better world. But when it comes to gun violence, I feel helpless.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  6. Beautifully written. You touch on some great points that I, too, as a parent hope to instill in my daughter, and on the fears and emotions I think we all face. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 9, 2015
  7. This was very well written. I have a friend from High School (and fellow blogger on wordpress) whose son is in 1st grade and came home scared of Friday approaching because it was 9/11. Apparently a video had been seen in school (I’m sure very age appropriate) but not ample enough conversation was done to prep the parents beforehand. I felt bad she felt silenced and not ready to discuss it. The amazing mom that she is, they figured out a way to navigate the situation and from what I understand he went to school on Friday and was relieved nothing happen. My initial reaction was- why teach our children this, but we HAVE to teach them at some point. Yes, I agree completely they need to learn in small bits and pieces along the way so they don’t not lose faith in humankind. What I recall being a kid and learning about tragedy, I remember wanting to badly to help people and make them feel better. If we never witnessed any bad (even from afar) we may not understand the good in people. Perhaps this is why God (or whatever you believe in) made good/evil a presence in our world. We need something to compare to recognize the honor and bravery that people display when challenged with grief. It’s horrible and of course, I sit her discussing without grief in my life for anyone harmed, but I feel for the families. I honestly think we need more mental health discussion and free help in our country to help people deal better with life rather than resorting to violence.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  8. ignore my grammar errors 🙂

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  9. Rachael #

    Strong post Alice. I heard on the radio that there been 250 shootings like this since Sandy Hook. Seems so unbelievable and as a New Zealander it’s hard to even contemplate having to have this discussion. Let’s hope that one day your finds away to remove guns from the lives of ordinary people. I think it’s a difficult thing to explain to kids that people are sometimes evil, but thinking about it I guess, books and stories can be useful.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  10. Alice, it’s a shame that we as parents have to worry about this!! I used to joke about taking my kids and living in the middle of the forest to get away from all the crap that’s out there! And now it doesn’t seem like a crazy idea after hearing of all these shootings.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  11. Roger #

    My children are still too small but when the time comes and an example presents itself, I want to explain to them that not everyone is peaceful like we are. Some people have bad intentions and you should avoid any involvement with them.

    I want to underscore that it is the intention that matters, not the tool that is used. Almost anything in our environment can be used in a harmful manner, so I would not focus the discussion on guns per-se. In fact I would like to teach my children to shoot when they are old enough – not so much as a self defense but just for fun target practice, and to steer away from the notion that _guns_ are the problem.

    We recently hired a high school student to help around the house, and the stories she told were quite shocking. Not about guns but just an all-around septic environment. Bullying, teasing, bad teaching methods, drugs, unruly classmates, foul language, disrespect… I think these are much more common problems and collectively much more harmful than the school shootings — they just aren’t very newsworthy and as such don’t get as much attention as they should.

    On top of that I’m hearing that the cafetaria does not serve healthy food (mostly fries, pizza, coke, etc). The school bus takes 2 hours each way to travel 12 miles so the students lose 4hrs a day just commuting.

    In all I think shootings are the tip of the iceberg.. the least of the issues to be concerned with.

    Like

    October 9, 2015
  12. mt #

    Thanks for writing this. We were living overseas, preparing to move back to the US with our then-7 month old, when the Newtown massacre happened. Like this recent shooting was for you, Newtown hit close to home. It’s not far from where I grew up; one of my friends is related a family who lost a child at the school that day. It sucked a lot of joy out of our anticipation. Why, exactly, were we moving back? Because we didn’t feel like being expats anymore? So many parents have abandoned their homelands to make a better life for their kids elsewhere (including some of our ancestors who came to the US in the first place!). Maybe we were being selfish.

    (Unexpectedly, we find ourselves living abroad again, in a country with a much more sensible gun culture than the US).

    Gun issues aside, I too have found my son’s dawning awareness of the human capacity for cruelty to be one of the hardest things about parenting. We all want to shield our kids from it, all the while knowing that we can’t. The only consolation I can find is that it forces me to teach my son resilience and compassion. But it’s rather cold comfort.

    Like

    October 10, 2015
  13. This is such a sensitive issue. Parenting in these times presents many new challenges.

    Like

    October 10, 2015
  14. Keeping our children safe is one of our first jobs as mothers. In order to give our children a real perspective on the world, these heartbreaking conversations are a consequence. BUT as sad as it makes us….our children will become great citizens of this world and be emotionally well adjusted. Answering their questions leads them to a place of knowledge and greater self actualization. Great job, mom!

    Like

    October 10, 2015
  15. This post really got to my heart. I have a two year old daughter and I can’t make out half the stuff she tries to tell or ask me. I know when that time comes that I can actually understand her, I will become you in the sense of parenting. Gun violence is really becoming more of an overlooked issue that needs to be addressed. It’s hard losing a loved one to gun violence but having to answer a toddler’s question about death is scarier. My childhood friend that was murdered by gun violence has a daughter that had a dream before her died of him dying then when he died her mother had to explain to her at the funeral he was asleep. She still ask “Mommy, when is daddy going to wake up?” It just makes you sacred to even know that they want to know about it. It’s also better to teach them young so they can be aware because mommy or daddy won’t be there all the time and it is so crazy people in the world.

    Like

    October 11, 2015
  16. Carte Travel #

    Poignant discussion. Our society has been desensitized to violence mostly because of TV shows and movies portraying murder and destruction as entertainment. We are biologically wired to emulate each other. Violent shows and video games don’t promote compassion and peace.

    Like

    October 12, 2015
  17. Wow, thanks for responding to this tragic event in such a real, honest, and thoughtful way. I am a mother of two as well, and find it very easy to slip into an anxious frame of mind with my parenting. But worrying doesn’t make me any stronger nor my children any safer. You’ve highlighted some great points for us as parents to focus on – the importance of character development and empathy. I am challenged every day with how to teach these values to my toddler. I am with you, as a mother, in this overwhelming duty of ours to raise caring, thoughtful children.

    Like

    October 13, 2015
  18. nicoletimmons831 #

    This is absolutely beautiful ❤️ my daughter is only 11 weeks old and I think about what I want to teach her and instill in her every single day

    Like

    October 14, 2015
  19. So hard to explain this kind of thing to a child to prepare them for things like this. It is something we have to be prepared for though. Guns arent the problem, its the people behind the gun we need to focus on. Mental health is not something that should be taken with a grain of salt. I live in CA and there is a huge problem with access to mental health for the people who really need it. That is the issue that needs to be addressed. i have a family member that attends that college so I know first hand how shaken up you must be. I live in Northern CA but used to live in Bend. Very scary things happening in the world. We just need to be prepared.

    Like

    October 18, 2015
    • I don’t see why we can’t do both – increase support and services for mental health and put sensible restrictions on gun ownership.

      Like

      October 20, 2015
      • maggie #

        Alice – the problem with “sensible restrictions on gun ownership” is that someone who is willing to break the law about murder is really unlikely to care about the gun laws.

        It’s like the debate about vaccinations and autism, there is a lot of ideas that sound good and make great talking points, but the actual data doesn’t support that as a fix. I live in NY, and we now have the strictest gun laws anywhere, and gun crime has only increased. Legal gun ownership is at an all time low, but gun-related crime is increasing. My parents and their friends remember when every teenage boy had their hunting rifle in the coat closet so they could go out to the fields after school…. Gun violence in the real world has increased in proportion to violence in the media (TV, games, movies, etc) and not correlated to gun availability or power.

        Like

        October 21, 2015
      • Roger #

        We already have sensible restrictions on firearms:
        – You need to be 18/21 years old to purchase and go through a FBI background check. Minors can handle firearms under supervision.
        – People with a criminal record or mental health issues are prohibited from purchasing, owning or handling a firearm
        – A license with training is required before a firearm can be carried in public (for the purpose of self-defense)

        etc..

        Besides, most schools are already gun free zones. Do you not see the flaw in the thinking of “Ooh, someone broke the law! Let’s make another law. That will surely stop them!”

        I think the shootings are overly dramatized by media. I read some time ago that according to FBI statistics, if you have a swimming pool your child is 100 times more likely to drown in it than to die in a school shooting. But a child drowining in a pool is not news so you don’t hear about that.

        Like

        October 22, 2015
  20. I’m going to close comments on this post for now, because I don’t have time to discuss gun policy at the moment. It is a discussion that I would like to have at some point, but I can’t respond right now. Thanks for understanding.

    Like

    October 22, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. After Another School Shooting, Doing My Best to Parent in a Scary World | taleemsbkyliay

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: