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?