Sunday, December 16, 2012

Psychologically Protecting Kids: One Size Does Not Fit All

The most important job of a parent is to protect his or her child in every way possible, both physically and psychologically. The latter half of this duty has been severely put to the test by Friday's horrific acts of violence at a Connecticut elementary school.

Should parents tell their children about the mass killings of adults and first-graders? If they don't, will the kids hear about the tragedy at school from friends and become afraid that the same thing might happen to them? If parents do, will the children grow too fearful to return to school? It's been hard to know what to do.

In my case, I had some precedents. I had to put my nearly fifteen-year-old bichon frise down when Christopher was three. Sparkplug had become blind, had fallen off my back deck, and could no longer control his bowels. He was having frequent accidents on the carpet where Charlie was learning to crawl. Sparky was in bad shape, so I had to make a tough decision. Since Christopher naturally adored Sparky and had always lived with him, I needed to address the subject of death with my preschooler. I was torn about how to approach the matter, but then I found a beautiful children's book called Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. It describes a joyful place where dogs live after they have left Earth. Showing the book to Christopher was the perfect way to let my son know that his precious doggie was gone. Later, I occasionally discovered Christopher looking at the book on his own. He was missing Sparkplug and seeking comfort.

A couple of years later, I was faced with another dilemma when a friend of his and Charlie's from preschool died from a brain tumor. This boy, only five at the time, was in between my sons in terms of age. So when we had C over once to our house, the three-way playdate worked really well. I was devastated by the news and again stymied as to how to handle it with my boys. After much thought, I decided not to tell my sons. C lived in the city next door and had graduated to kindergarten there, so he was no longer in school with Christopher and Charlie at the time he died. He had basically moved off our radar screen by virtue of living in a different community and attending a different school. It's one of the most common rules in the book: You simply lose touch to one extent or another when your commonality (in this case, the preschool) is no longer there. My boys knew he had gone to kindergarten, and they had plenty of other friends to occupy their time. I could avoid the situation. They were far too young to learn of a peer and friend having died, I felt. Hence, I kept my mouth shut, and it never became an issue . . . other than eliciting from the preschool director and her assistant assurances that C's death would not be spoken of at all in front of the children.

This time around I had several factors to weigh in making my decision about what to do. And, yes, I did make a decision that I followed through on just tonight. As the Newtown incident happened on a Friday, I (and other parents) had all weekend to mull the situation over before sending our little ones off to school tomorrow morning.

First, I thought about Christopher. He is a nine-year-old third-grader with a broad understanding of the world as well as past and current events. He knows John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while president. He knows terrorists masterminded and carried out the deadly 9/11 attacks. He knows Michael Jackson died from prescription drugs. He knows about the day-after-Christmas earthquake/tsunami, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, and the H.M.S. Bounty replica that he toured on September 1 going down in Hurricane Sandy. He knows about the big news events because he has seen or heard about them on TV or from me.

Christopher is the little man in my house. He is smart, mature, sensitive, and grounded. From a very young age, he has shown interest in, well, just about everything. I made a conscious decision not to talk down to him or baby him when he was clearly beyond that. I exposed him to Harry Potter at age five, and he immediately loved hearing me read the books to him. We watched the films as soon as they came out, and now we own every single one. I took him to Hugo, and he wants to see Lincoln next.

Knowing Christopher as I do, I felt strongly that he would be able to handle the news of Newtown, Connecticut, with just the right amount of concern, sensitivity, and anger -- and, yes, I believe it is completely appropriate for a mature third-grader to feel, and be instructed to feel, anger toward senseless gun violence. I resolved to tell him. But when? And would he have already heard the news?

Christopher was performing in a holiday show all weekend. Five performances in four days, to be exact. I needed to find the time to tell him, but I also needed to avoid rattling him before he went on stage. Then there was the issue of all the other children in the show, most of whom were older than my son and more likely to have learned about the carnage. Would Christopher overhear kids talking about it? Or might he stumble upon the news at his brother's well-attended basketball clinic Saturday morning?

Fortunately, neither scenario panned out, paving the way for me to break the news early tonight when I took him aside in his bedroom after returning from the last performance. I didn't want to upset his sleep if I could help it, so I spoke to him sooner rather than later. This was the best I could do under the circumstances because explaining the situation tomorrow morning right before sending him off to school, of all places, would obviously be far from ideal!

Well, I am relieved to report that Christopher handled our talk just as I expected he would -- and even asked me afterward if we could drive down to Newtown to support the grieving families.

What a great boy! I am so proud of him.

Next up: Charlie, my tough-as-nails six year old. Even though he is only twenty-nine months Christopher's junior, I couldn't simply lump them together by sitting them down for a one-size-fits-all family explanation. I felt I must respect the fact that Charlie is younger and, therefore, less mature in every way than his brother. The child shooting victims were, tragically, Charlie's age -- one of them only three days older, in fact. So how would it feel to hear that your exact peers in the state next door were gunned down in their own elementary school? Downright terrifying and confusing, I would imagine.

Thus, while Charlie also has had early exposure to Harry Potter, the fate of the H.M.S. Bounty -- I wanted both boys to know because it was personal to us -- and some other rather grown-up or unfortunate real-life stories, the slaughtering of these sweet innocents in the Nutmeg State crosses the line of being WAY TOO MUCH for Charlie or any other first-grader to hear about. If my son happens to learn something from someone else, I will deal with it with him at that time. But the principal of his school has assured parents via e-mail that no staff members will provide information about the situation with students.

Wise move.

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