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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.


1 jodifur { 12.18.12 at 7:49 am }

You are a really, really good mom. I still haven’t even talked to Michael about it.

2 Katie { 12.18.12 at 8:18 am }

I hate that we even need to have these conversations with our children.

3 a { 12.18.12 at 8:42 am }

Some days I have no doubts about my daughter’s ability to protect herself. Other days, I worry that she’ll never be able to stick up for herself. When she was in daycare with 11 little boys and maybe 1 or 2 other girls, one of the boys’ moms said “She can really hold her own with the boys.”

A boy on the bus told her about Sandy Hook, and I had to correct some of the errors in the tale he told. She didn’t really want to talk about it, said “but that doesn’t ever happen, right?” and then proceeded to tell me about her dream where everyone turned into zombies. I think it was a sidelong way to approach what to do in an emergency (she called the police and the fire department in her dream but everyone kept turning into zombies – even a baby), and so we talked about that. I’m sure it will come up again…

4 Chickenpig { 12.18.12 at 9:07 am }

I have not spoken to my kids about it. They don’t watch live TV, they don’t do social media, they are oblivious. At least for now…

What I did do is talk to my daughter about my own life and death situation. She only wants one thing for Christmas, and she has told EVERYone. My whole family then told her the story of when I turned 8 and all I wanted for my birthday was a seal stuffed animal. I ended up with 3 of them. I still have one. The reason why I only have one is that my house was burned down by a drug addled arsonist. We were very lucky to have survived. I told my daughter how I lost those other seals because I didn’t want her to think that I was careless with the things I love, I’m not. Her first reaction was “But you are all ok, right? so it didn’t matter that you lost your seals because you are alive?” The wisdom of a 4 year old child 🙂

5 Jendeis { 12.18.12 at 10:19 am }

I love you. You are a wonderful mom.

6 lifeintheshwa { 12.18.12 at 10:27 am }

Love his concern for others – and so sorry you live in a world where this is a conversation you have to have with your kids.

7 Kimberly { 12.18.12 at 10:48 am }

I think you handled this discussion wonderfully and it reminds me of my own parents sitting down and talking to me and my brother about how to handle and protect ourselves after bad things happened locally. Growing up, there was a gruesome murder at a local McDonalds and I still remember my parents sitting us down, explaining it so we could process it and telling us how we can be safe. I still carry those words with me. I still use it their tips to assess my own safety in situations. We should never have to have these talks with children, but your kids will now be prepared and I think that’s the best thing you can give them in the wake of all this tragedy.

8 Lacie { 12.18.12 at 11:34 am }

Thanks Mel. What an important conversation this was. As an educator, I teach lock down procedures and have had to run through the drills with kids. It always gives me the chills. It’s good that parents are having these conversations. At school we talk about the standard drill and procures but not about specifics like this. I am glad that you ran through their possible reactions. When Rocky gets older, I think I’ll even run through some drills with him. Please, G-d, may he never have to use them.

9 Kathy { 12.18.12 at 12:56 pm }

You are such an incredible mom. I get why you wrote this, for you. But I thank you for sharing it with us.

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 12.18.12 at 1:43 pm }

This is very helpful, and I’ll be cribbing off you this week.

My guess is that no one at our dinner table will be concerned with cleaning up any vomit. Rather, there may be fantasies about using projectile vomiting as a defense shield, because that’s how my kids roll.

11 Justine { 12.18.12 at 2:18 pm }

My son doesn’t really want to talk about this, and I suspect that he simply isn’t ready. I also know that they do drills in his school, though he tells me that they are “in case a wild animal, like a raccoon, gets loose in the school.” I don’t love the lie, but I also know that the school wants to be sensitive to the different ways that parents help their children deal with crisis, or the differing levels of information given to them.

That one girl who survived … she is the one I worry about the most. She must be one incredibly strong and brave and wise little girl. But this is going to be one hell of a journey.

Little things still set me off, and yet, I also feel like I have no right to grieve. Is that weird? I’m lucky. I *have* my kids. How much can you grieve for someone else’s loss?

I think I need to go google “grief appropriation.”

12 loribeth { 12.18.12 at 3:08 pm }

There were front-page headlines in the local paper this morning because the provincial teachers union (which is holding rotating strikes — but that’s another story…) has asked members to wear black armbands in memory of the slain teachers in Connecticut. Some parents are objecting because they don’t want their kids to know about what happened. I am ambivalent re: the armbands — but I am not exactly sure how these parents are going to be able to protect their kids from learning what happened (any more than those poor parents in Connecticut could protect their kids from what happened there). Kids are so media savvy these days, and of course they talk among themselves — and (as A. pointed out, above) they don’t always get their facts straight. I think it’s much better that they hear it (or at least a true but edited version) from their parents or teachers or maybe both.

I think I’ve told this story before, but when I was 9 years old and in Grade 4, a radical Quebec separatist group called the FLQ kidnapped a British diplomat (who was later released) & also kidnapped & murdered a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte. (Google “FLQ October Crisis” & I’m sure you’ll find lots of information.) Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister at the time, invoked the War Measures Act, which severely curtailed civil liberties, and there were troops in the streets of Montreal & Ottawa. It was a very tense couple of months until things died down. I was living far away from the action, and in a small remote rural community, and there was no Internet or CNN ratcheting up the news coverage, but there was still a lot of fear. One of my friends told us that Laporte had been beheaded, and I believed her. (It wasn’t true.) But her dad was an RCMP officer, so we believed her (he would know, wouldn’t he??). Even without the Internet, there were lots of wild stories circulating, ; )

13 persnickety { 12.18.12 at 5:13 pm }

The fight point is one that should be made to everyone who ever vulnerable- whether adult or child. There have been a couple of snatched disappearances in the last few months in Oz, as well as a rehash of the Daniel Morcome(?) case- and I am always struck by the fact that they don’t seem to have fought- they thought that if hey behaved themselves the attacker would elt them go afterwards (no).

A very hard lesson to teach kids though- in any form- that in a crisis, they need to go against so many of the rules that they live by on a daily basis.

I am not watching muchof the stuff on Sandy Hook- I find watching the news reports with every detail really disturbing- these families should be able to grieve in private. I don’t know anyone in the town, I suspect that there are few people in Australia who do, yet we send news reporters there- it is more like a horrible form of entertainmment.

14 Battynurse { 12.18.12 at 5:20 pm }

Makes me think of all the stranger danger kidnapping fears etc that my mom worried about and taught to prepare for (or at least the normal stuff she tried to prepare me for) when I was a kid. How much more horrifying and frightening are the things that children need to be taught today.

15 Guera { 12.18.12 at 9:38 pm }

At a very young age my father told me straight up what could happen to me if I talked to strangers.(kidnapped, raped, tortured, killed). Still, I did some pretty stupid things as a child which kind of blows me away now when I think about it. I find it truly insightful that you thought to tell your kids that the general rules don’t apply in a crisis. I could see a little girl hesitating to go into the boys restroom even though that might be the closest one. I have an aunt that never wanted to scare her daughter so she didn’t prepare her for some very real possibilities. My grandmother watched her (the daughter) a lot when she was young (often when my aunt was traveling) and I asked my aunt once if T knew what to do if my grandmother suffered a medical emergency. She said she hadn’t talked about it with her because she didn’t want to scare her. That floored me. I have another friend who constantly practices scenarios with her children. I am glad I read your post today. I haven’t visited in a while but there is much wisdom in what you wrote that I will not soon forget. Thank you.

16 luna { 12.19.12 at 1:05 am }

such a thoughtful boy to think of helping clean the penis-kick vomit.
I love how you taught them the rules do not apply. hate that you had to do it though. xo

17 NotTheMama { 12.19.12 at 1:18 am }

First, I pity the person who would try to mess with your two, because they have awesome parents who have prepared them for action!
We have not discussed this specific tragedy with our boys (ages 5 and 3, both in preschool). Our reality is such that we had to warn them about people from their past trying to snatch or lure them away. The older starts big school in the Fall,and quite frankly, I am terrified to think of playground time and events that bring lots of outsiders in… I want them to be aware, but I don’t want them constantly worrying about being kidnapped. Surely there is some middle ground??? Still trying to find that balance!!!

18 Alexicographer { 12.19.12 at 1:23 am }

@Loribeth teachers in our area organized to wear green and white. When I first heard about this I had the reaction you did about the armbands but having now seen it in action, it was unnoticeable. I mean, if I hadn’t know it was a “message” or a memorial I wouldn’t have picked up on it at all. I think this distinguishes it from what you are describing, since people wear green and white at times (for no reason) but not black armbands. Of course teachers would be affected by Sandy Hook (in their roles as teachers, I mean, besides, you know, as for all of us, as human beings) and I think it’s appropriate to do something to memorialize their colleagues who died in the line of duty and the children those colleagues were seeking to protect, but better to do so in a way that preserves the relative innocence and peace of the children they are working with, also. Even if it’s not possible/appropriate to shelter kids completely from the news, similar to what so many adults have been saying, I think it’s likely that kids don’t want or benefit from being reminded of what happened (and that far more than us they should have the right not to be reminded).

19 Tiara { 12.19.12 at 7:34 am }

It ripped my guts out to read & that you had to have this conversation with your babes but thank you for sharing this.

20 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 12.19.12 at 8:37 am }

This is… such a sad conversation. But I think you did it well.

I saw a snippet of the speech by Obama saying things must change, but I am not sure how and what he has in mind. This seems to happen awfully often.

21 liljan98 { 12.19.12 at 2:39 pm }

I think you did an amazing job with this talk with your twins. That parents have to have this talk with their children and that children have to practice these kind of emergency drills is one of the many many things that make me sad these days. I’m 37 and I don’t remember having to practice stuff like that when I was in elementary school or even later. We did fire drills of course, but that was about it. I breaks me heart that children nowadays don’t grow up as innocent as we did.

22 Mina { 12.20.12 at 5:25 am }

You are an incredible woman and mother. Thank you for this post. May God keep all of our children safe. All of them, from everywhere on the world.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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