After Newtown: Talking to Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve passed the sign for Newtown, Connecticut hundreds of times. Just sixty miles northeast of New York City, Newtown is one letter away from my hometown of Newton. That near coincidence always made me smile. And now I cry because it is just one letter away from Newton. That’s how close this tragedy has been for all of us.

The Columbine murders were incomprehensible. And so were the murders at Virginia Tech and in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. But Newtown was on a different scale of horror. A young man in black fatigues and armed to the teeth walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and slaughtered an entire first grade class.

When did mass murder become the norm in this country?

We shake our heads and try to bring the victims closer to our hearts by piecing together their life stories, staring at their snapshots in the paper. Maybe we’ve stood together in synagogue and said the Kaddish for these fallen sisters and brothers. But it’s no longer good enough to memorialize their deaths. We have to acknowledge the overarching issue of gun control, and we can begin to do that by understanding gun control as a parenting issue.

Taking up gun control within the purview of parenting also connects us to the emotional and mental health of our young people. Maybe it starts with addressing bullying. Yes, we’ve made great strides in making students and parents aware of the deadly consequences of bullying—the suicides, the homicidal rages. I can’t help but think that we haven’t done enough. We’ve tried to legislate against bullying, but a lot of people still shrug it off as human nature or a natural part of childhood.

There has also been a lot written about helicopter parents—parents who constantly monitor their children’s social lives, their grades or their extracurricular activities. We’ve all been there and done that to some degree. Our focus gets blurred. If we step off the high-achiever’s treadmill for a moment, we may realize that our kids really need a good, old-fashioned, swim-in-a-lake camp instead of eight weeks of intensive math in the summer. Down time is highly underrated.

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, a visibly shaken President Obama fought back tears and declared that Americans were “broken-hearted.” He said that the country must “come together and take meaningful action.” Yet his press secretary put off the subject of gun control that same day at a press conference. All I could think of was the famous quote from Rabbi Hillel who sagely noted, “if not now, when?”

In the meantime, we have to somehow reassure our children that they are safe. After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the Child Study Center at New York University provided some good advice for parents and teachers. First and foremost open up the lines of communication. Don’t hesitate to talk about what happened in Newtown. If a child is able to read, chances are that he or she has also heard about the shootings. Between social media and television, it’s almost impossible to shield a child from the news.

Give a child context and perspective. This happened in one community, and although gun violence is out there, the chances are minimal that it will happen in her school too. Continue to reassure the child that he is safe and that you are doing everything you can to keep him safe. Make home a calm oasis. Of all the studies and advice that I read, NYU’s literature was unique in suggesting that parents encourage their children to look towards the future. Stick to goals and continue to make plans.

And there was almost unanimous agreement in all of the trauma literature that I saw to encourage children to give back. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that families find ways to help people. Make sympathy cards for the kids of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Find a child-centered charity and make a contribution. I liked a friend’s suggestion to call local restaurants in Newtown, give a credit card number, and donate a meal.

The Academy also suggested opening up a conversation by asking children how much they know about what happened in Newtown. Clarify a child’s question before answering. Is the child curious about issues surrounding the event such as how people obtain guns? Or is there something deeper, more personal going on like, “could this happen to me or someone I love?”

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Conversations can be more nuanced with older kids. My teenagers have heard me call out falsehoods put out by the gun lobby like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or “more people are protected by guns than killed by them.” If that’s getting too political just look at the devastating image of the children walking single file out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School—eyes closed, hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them.

I’ll end with part of a prayer written by Rachel Barenblat, a rabbi and poet who writes a thoughtful blog called The Velveteen Rabbi.

Soothe the children who witnessed

things no child should see,

the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn’t, the parents

who are torn apart with grief

who will never kiss their beloveds again.

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