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Rocking The Cradle

Is There A Way to Talk to Children About the Mass Murder of Children?

This morning, while I was reading yet another deeply upsetting piece relating to the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook Elementary online, I began to cry, again. It was one of several moments since I learned the news on Friday that I became emotional in front of my three year old. I have refrained from watching the news in front of him (my policy since his birth, broken only on rare occasions, like Election Day) as well as from talking about the tragedy in front of him.

But even when we aren't putting words to things, our toddler aged children can intuit when our emotions are running high, when we are glued more than usual to our computers or our cell phones or our t.v. screens or however we are getting our information.

He came up to me and demanded my attention and started to build a fort on top of me with pillows where I was sitting on the floor with my laptop. That old fort again. The House that Cayce Built.  As if he was trying to shelter me, in my sadness, or simply distract me from it with play. I laughed until a pillow slipped onto my keyboard, and then I got annoyed with him, and then he cried. Hard. I comforted him, told him I loved him, apologized for being annoyed, but explained that I need my computer and he can't put pillows on top of me when I'm on the computer. Then I went back to my reading online.

"Oh no," I said, aloud, slipping as I read a local headline about a car accident.

"What?" he asked. "What is it, Mommy?"

I ignored him and kept reading. "What Mommy? What is it?"

"A car accident," I said, finally

Venturing into murky territory. Saying more than I normally would as a mother.

Before Sandy Hook, nothing involving people getting hurt was considered appropriate subject matter for my young child.

Now, three days after twenty children were shot dead in the middle of show and tell I'm seeing a car crash as a happy alternative subject to mass murder.

This is the insidious way in which the ground rules have shifted.

My son got my attention again when he showed me a pile of random craft materials he had rummaged from a paper bag. There were orange and red construction paper flames left from an abandoned Halloween project, some unused red velvet ribbon, and a bag of plastic clothes pins whose contents we had used to make the beaks on our Thanksgiving turkeys.

"Look what I have!" he said, pointing to the contents he had strewn across the living room floor.

"Oh," I said, still distracted, unfazed by the mess, or at least careful not to upset him again with an overblown reactio. "Look at that," I said.

When I started to go back to my reading, Cayce stood in front of me and put his hands on my cheeks and turned my face to make me look at him.

"We can make a bird, Mommy! Mommy, we can make a bird with these!"

He was seeing the construction paper flames as big bird feathers. This bird had suddenly become of the utmost importance.

So I gave up the laptop and joined him in crafting together a wonderful bird.

I felt as if he was telling me, even on an unconscious level, that I couldn't dwell on the negative. That we had to keep moving. That we can make something beautiful out of all the sadness.

There were other things that happened that made me think that he was picking up on what was going on despite his father's and my efforts to shelter him. First, there was a mention in his Monday morning playgroup, of the statement the school Superintendent had put out on how to talk to our kids about the news... The very minimal was said... "how to talk to your kids about what went on in the news on Friday..." I wondered if he could put it together... that Friday must have been the day that Mommy's emotions started to get the best of her.

But there was also the moment yesterday afternoon when my son went to his dad's back office where the TV had been left on, turned to CNN. He was only there momentarily, but I still had the feeling he had overheard something that had made him uncomfortable. When I took him back to his room for his nap, he said he wanted to lock the door. He has never ever asked to lock the bedroom door before. I told him we didn't need to lock the door. Nobody was going to come in.

"Why not, Mommy? Why not?"

I thought maybe he had heard some of the talking heads, the psychology experts who might have said, "Tell your kids that you have locks on the doors. Show them that the locks work."

We are grasping at straws here. Knowing that we are in deep over our heads. Do we talk to our young kids? How much do we tell them? If we don't talk to them, will they overhear something in school? I guess I feel lucky that C is still young enough that I don't have to have the conversation. He doesn't go to school yet, so he won't become corrupted by default..

It's very hard to have a conversation like this, even with older kids, when there are as yet so few answers.  When we cannot guarantee our children's safety.  The experts can give us reassuring lines to use, like "School violence is still extremely rare," or "We are doing everything we can to make it better," but we are just putting band-aids on an amputee.

If you are the parent of a very small child like me, you just keep playing the games, you know, peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek and the joy of being lost and then found. The game where the world is good, and our children are safe.  The game where the mentally ill are treated, the assault weapons are dismantled, the video games are melted into a roaring, hellacious fire, and young children don't die when they go to school.