The evening before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I gathered with a handful of other parents at my daughter’s preschool in Seattle to talk about sex. The preschool offered quarterly seminars as part of its Family Education Series. This talk, “Birds and Bees and Kids,” facilitated by a local sexual health educator, would teach us how to bring up the most embarrassing of subjects with our children.
During the introductions in the conference room, we stated our names and the ages of our children. “Three and five,” I said, and my mind drifted home, where my family would be sitting down to dinner. I pictured Helen, fidgety in her chair, using her index finger as a ketchup utensil. Caleb’s cold had taken a turn for the worse, and he would be picking at his food, lying back down on the couch after a few bites. My husband Matt would speed-eat his meal, popping up from the table half a dozen times to cater to the kids’ requests.
The facilitator led us in a discussion of our childhood experiences of sex education.
“I remember my mother sitting me down for The Talk,” one parent said.
“I got a mumbled, red-faced speech from my dad,” recalled another. We all nodded. Our goal, the facilitator said, was for our own children not to remember one big conversation.
“You should talk about it just as you talk about anything else,” she said. “Anytime they ask.” She told us not to act embarrassed or overreact. Get some books. No need to make a big speech. “Kids don’t make value-judgments the way adults do,” she said at the end of the hour. They don’t weight information if we present it straightforwardly. “You can tell them: here’s how to bake a pie, here’s some information about sex, on Saturday we are going to the zoo.”
The next morning, Caleb was still too sick to go to kindergarten. I called the attendance line, and cancelled plans to take Helen to gymnastics class. After breakfast, I pecked at my laptop at the dining room table while the kids watched DVDs ten feet away. Their two bodies took up one couch cushion as they sat shoulder to shoulder, Helen’s purple blanket bunched at her waist, Caleb’s green one forming a tidy cocoon around the lower half of his body. In the corner of the room, the Christmas tree stood, lights plugged in, decorations from Matt’s and my childhoods hanging from its branches.
News of the shooting arrived on my computer screen via social media around 10:00 a.m. I read the headlines on the CNN website, my kids’ zombie stares locked on the television screen, oblivious to my crumpled face. Matt, at work, wouldn’t be able to talk on the phone, so I texted him the news. I sat down between the kids on the couch, my computer on my lap, while episode after episode of Curious George flickered on the TV screen.
Don’t look at pictures, I told myself. Then I looked. Photographs of emergency workers, of parents scouring the crowd for their children, my tears a miniscule version of those of the mothers on my screen. Curious George ended. I shut my laptop and pulled Caleb and Helen against me, one on each side of my torso. I wanted to spend the rest of the day in that position, burying my face into their necks, inhaling their sweet scents, but they were already wriggling out of my embrace.
“Dance party time,” I announced. I clicked off the television and turned up a Beatles CD while Helen stripped down to her underwear and Caleb emerged from the playroom carrying our entire box of instruments, the tambourines and bells clanging against the sides of the container.
“Great idea,” I told him. “We need them all.”
All weekend, Matt and I debated what we should say, or not say, to Caleb about the shooting. Helen’s preschool was a known entity, a place where the teachers would provide a protective shield between the kids and the horrors of the world. But we’d only had three months’ experience at elementary school. Would the teachers say anything? I knew that some of Caleb’s classmates had older siblings. They might come to school on Monday with stories, half-truths Matt and I would need to correct later.
I thought I knew how to talk to my children about death. Six days after Caleb’s second birthday, one of my closest friends died of cancer. On the advice of his preschool teacher, I used lifeless worms and birds we found on the ground that spring to explain my friend’s death. When talking to my kids about big topics, my rules are: Keep It Simple and Don’t Lie. But how could I explain this, that a man had shot his way into a school just like Caleb’s and killed 20 children his own age? That some people are kind beyond measure, like the Sandy Hook teachers who hid their students in supply closets and bathrooms, or died trying to protect them. That others act in horrific ways, for reasons we don’t understand. I tell my children all the time that one of my jobs as a parent is to keep them safe. How could I tell Caleb that there really is no safe place, not even school, not even the blanket-walled cave he sleeps in each night?
I went online and read articles on how to talk to kids about violence or trauma. It’s important, the experts all said, that the news comes from the parents. Why, exactly? What if he did hear it from a friend, or his bus driver? I remembered the mother who drove the carpool on Mondays when I was in fourth grade. One March afternoon, as we pulled out of the school parking lot, her son in the front seat and three of us in the back, she gave us the news: “President Reagan was shot,” she said, her tone excited, as though she’d told us we were stopping for ice cream on the way home. Our parents were all Democrats, and we reacted the way we thought we should: we let out a cheer.
Before I became a parent, I thought I would play more of a starring role in my children’s education. I believed that I would teach them how to talk, how to read, how to ride a bicycle. I would be their main source of information about the world, and their filter for it. Our relationship would be such that they would seek out my advice and guidance for any major decisions, from birth through their teenage years.
As it turns out, my kids learn from everyone: parents and teachers, adults and children, friends and neighbors and strangers. Lessons take place while we are putting on our coats in the entryway of our house, in line at the grocery store, driving in the car with dried leaves strewn at our feet and Bob Dylan playing on the stereo. We deliver information off-the-cuff, facts unverified. We ad-lib. We pinch-hit.
Maybe telling Caleb about the Newtown shooting should be no different. We should follow the rules that the sex educator advised–no big speeches, no drama. Maybe, if Caleb doesn’t remember where he was when the shooting happened, or how he learned about it, we would be successful.
On Sunday night, after the kids went to bed, we learned that safety would be the topic at the Monday morning school assembly. I pictured his classmates with older siblings whispering to Caleb about the shooting, their voices excited as the carpool mom’s had been, all those years ago. They wouldn’t be thinking what I was thinking: It could have been here. It could have been us. How long until it is us?
“We need to tell him,” I said, I, who’d been advocating a say-nothing policy all weekend.
“Should I go to work late so we can tell him together?” Matt asked. No, we decided. That would telegraph our fears, expose the rawness of the trauma.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
In the Monday morning darkness, I woke Caleb first. He’d had a bloody nose in the night, and I led him to the bathroom to clean his face. As I rubbed his cheek with the dampened corner of a washcloth, I thought about keeping him home another day, maybe homeschooling him for the rest of kindergarten. I wondered how teachers across the country were preparing for school that morning, if they were afraid, if they considered switching professions. I took a deep breath.
“You have your field trip to the butterfly house at the science museum today,” I said. “And at the morning assembly before you go, they are going to talk about safety.” Caleb’s sleep-encrusted eyelids rose at the mention of the field trip. “Some people got hurt a few days ago,” I said. It felt like a cop-out as it emerged from my mouth, this fragment of a fact, but it was all I could manage to say without choking up. “Daddy and Mama and your teachers do everything we can to keep you safe. If you have any questions, you can ask any of us.” I paused. “Do you have any questions?”
His blue eyes looked up at me, his face now absent of dried blood.
“Is Daddy coming on the field trip?” he asked. I let my breath out.
“No,” I said, “but when you get home, will you tell us how many butterflies you saw?”