Monday, November 3, 2014

Talking to my Kid About Gun Violence

When the Sandy Hook shooting happened last year, adults were discussing it and the topic of gun violence and gun control a lot, and so it was inevitable that my then-four-year-old daughter would pick some of that information up.

I learned her interest when she told me that she wanted a gun for Christmas so that she could shoot and kill me. Then she laughed, as if this were a funny joke.

What followed was me explaining the concept of death to my kid for the first time. What ultimately hit home for her was the idea that once someone is dead, she would never see them again. They were gone, forever. She started crying at the very thought of it, and as much as it pained me to see her suffer like that, I was glad that she was beginning to understood that real violence can have real horrible consequences.

My thinking is that if a kid is old enough to play-act scenes of violence, to watch cartoons that act out violence (often with no consequences), he or she is old enough to at least have a cursory understanding of what that parallels in reality.

I found myself thinking about this today as we drove home from her school, and she noticed the field of t-shirts on crosses at the Lutheran Seminary, each individual shirt in memorial to a specific victim of illegal gun violence in Philadelphia. My daughter, who has just turned five, asked about the shirts.

In simple terms, I told her the truth: "Those shirts are for people who were killed by guns in our city. So we remember them, and so people stop shooting each other." My voice cracked as I said it. At a stop light, I turned to examine one shirt more closely; its victim's age, 2 years. My daughter's voice peeped up, "Don't feel sad, mama. It'll be okay."

“I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.” -Maurice Sendak 

Adults so often try to hide these hard realities from kids, but how can we hide what is right there, out in the open for all to see? How can we hide what we are discussing constantly? How can we stop our voices from cracking? Trying to hide the ugliness of the world seems much worse, as kids aren't that stupid, and they will at least know that something is up. Or worse, they'll grow up only associating guns with a bunch of romantic, fictional imagery.

I suppose the retort to that might be something such as, But what if it gives kids nightmares? What if they can't sleep at night for fear that they will be shot by some violent criminal?

So far my daughter hasn't expressed any such fears for her own safety, and she sleeps just fine. I'm the one sometimes kept up by the sound of gunshots in the distance, and haunted by a t-shirt in memorial to a toddler.