Teaching Moment: Talking about Sandy Hook with the Kids
When we sat down for dinner last night, I told the kids about the girl who survived in the Sandy Hook classroom by playing dead. I wanted to make clear that there is no right or wrong way to get through a crisis; there is only listening to adults and following your gut and hoping for the best. That the people who died did nothing wrong. That the people who did something clever — or had an adult do something clever — made it through by chance. But my G-d, I wanted them to think up clever things now when there is no immediate danger; to maybe imprint those ideas into their subconscious so if they were facing down danger, they would play dead too in order to live.
I told them that our bodies have three responses to danger, and we move through them in the following order: freeze, flight, or fight. Freezing would be falling down and playing dead on the floor.
“But how did that work? People don’t just fall over in their chair and die in a moment from looking at a gun,” the ChickieNob said, confused. And then the reality dawned on her. “The other students were already dying around her.”
“I think that must be right,” I told her, apologizing with my eyes that she has to live in a world where an eight-year-old comes to a realization like that at the dinner table. “She must have fallen down as her friends were shot.”
But there are other kinds of freezing — hiding in plain sight by standing very still off to the side, hiding in a closet or a bathroom or a cabinet. I promised them that no adult would ever get angry with them if they crawled into a space they weren’t supposed to go or hid in a place normally off-limits to kids if they were in a crisis situation. Boys can go in the girls bathroom, girls can go in the boys bathroom, the only rules are the ones the adults tell you in the moment to help you stick to a plan, and if there are no adults there to guide you, follow whatever your instincts tell you to do, keeping out of sight.
Flight would be running away. Moving yourself away from danger, whatever direction that may take you. Even if doing so would break one of my rules or one of the school’s rules, such as running outside without an adult’s permission.
And finally, fight. Fight isn’t really a possibility when it comes to a gun; it isn’t even an unfair fight such as an adult overpowering a child. It’s an impossible fight. But if someone ever grabbed you, I want you to mimic a sack of potatoes and go as heavy as possible. Fight back by not walking alongside them. Make them drag you. If there are people around you, choose any adult and call out something specific to them. If all that emerges from your mouth is a general “help me!” that is fine. But if you can be specific, all the better. Look at the person and scream, “Man in the red shirt! This person isn’t my parent! Get the police!” Never go quietly with someone who is trying to take you some place else, even if they tell you that they will hurt you if you don’t come with them. Because they are more likely to hurt you when they have taken you some place else than they are to hurt you in front of the people they’re trying to take you away from.
I told them if they were ever being held, fight back by hurting soft targets on the body. Dig your fingers into their eyes.
“If they’re wearing glasses, you’ll need to remove the glasses first,” the Wolvog pointed out.
“Yes, just rake your fingers down the person’s face, dragging off the glasses and sticking your fingers in their eyes. Punch them wherever you can punch them. Kick the knees, bite, pull hair, act like an animal. If you are being attacked, you do not have to do good behaviour. Actually, if you can, punch a man in the crotch. Use the top of your head, use your elbow, use your foot — whatever you can do to punch him there because it will be painful. I can’t speak from experience since I don’t have a penis, but I’ve been told that it is so painful that it can make a man throw up.”
“Well,” the Wolvog said doubtfully, “that would make more work for the cleaning staff. If the person threw up.”
“The cleaning staff would not mind if you did it to protect yourself or another student; if it was a crisis situation and it was done in self-defense.”
“But, to be polite, once the bad guy is caught, you should go back in the school and offer to help clean up the vomit. Not that it’s your vomit, but you should offer to help since you made the mess.”
“I don’t think the cleaning staff would make you clean that up,” the ChickieNob reassured him. “They’re really nice, and they would understand.”
“I’m just saying to offer to help,” the Wolvog finally relented. “If it was your penis-kick that caused the vomit mess.”
And that is what it is like to discuss a safety plan with eight-year-olds. There is the amusing innocence; the worry about getting in trouble for making noise in the hall (you do not need to walk in a straight line if there is a bad guy in the school) or creating a mess that will upset the cleaning staff. And there is the quiet maturity as they informed me of where they would hide or how they would run.
I worried about scaring them, but the reality is that their school already does these drills. They know their school’s plan, have gone through a half-dozen different crisis scenarios as a school, acting out their safety plan. They know that bad things can happen. They know that the adults around them will do their best to protect them. They know that no matter how scared they get, they need to wait until the crisis is over before they cry. They’ve been promised that there will be hours and hours afterward to scream and cry and let it all out, but in the moment, they will need to be silent, orderly, perform their job, follow directions. And they solemnly promised me they would do that.
But still, I reminded them that the likelihood they will ever need to use anything I told them is slim to none. Their great-grandmother went through life without ever being in a life threatening situation. Their grandmother went through life without ever being in a life threatening situation. Generation after generation is born and ages and dies without ever being in a shooting. But I want them to be prepared as best as anyone can be prepared, to talk about it now in case they are ever in danger and anything we’ve spoken about can help them or another person.
And please G-d, never place our children in a position to need to use anything we’ve taught them.
I wrote this more for me than for you; to remember what I said to the kids in case I want to refer back to it in the future. I’ll always know where to find it.