In Response to Orlando: How to Talk to Young Children About the Tragedy

On June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen entered the popular gay night club Pulse in Orlando and opened fire, killing 49 people and injuring 53 more in the worst shooting in United States history. Watching the news last Sunday, I clutched my baby close to me and worried about the kind of world in which she will grow up. Although we may want to shield our children from learning about acts of terrible violence like this, I don’t think we as teachers and parents can in good conscience remain silent. Our kids will likely hear about events like Orlando, and we need to be the safe harbors in which they can express their fears and feelings. There are many ways in which to respond, and everyone has to find what feels right for them and the children in their care, but here are a few ideas that may provide some guidance:

1)Answer their questions: For our youngest children, simple statements are best (e.g. A bad person hurt people.) Elementary students are a bit more worldly and will likely have lots of questions. Be prepared to answer them, but you’ll want to make sure you answer just the question that was asked. Children can certainly be spared the graphic details of the event. It may be helpful to find out what they already know before answering. It’s also perfectly okay to tell kids when you don’t know the answer. I think the most common question will be “Why?” and most adults have trouble comprehending the kind of hatred that leads to mass shootings like the one in Orlando. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we can…

2)Ensure them that they are safe: Children need to know that their homes and schools are safe places. Assure them that their parents, teachers, and other adults are there to protect them. Remind them about safety measures that are in place like emergency drills. Although shootings do happen, people safely gather at thousands of venues across the country every day. We can’t make promises we can’t keep (I remember my mom’s heartache when my sister saw Bambi’s mother die and couldn’t promise her nothing would ever happen to her mommy), but we can communicate to children that we will do our utmost to keep them safe.

3)Validate their feelings: Don’t dismiss children’s fears as unfounded. Kids are egocentric by nature, and feeling like any and every bad thing that happens is coming for them next is quite normal. You don’t have to feed into their fears, but you can reassure them that you understand and that you are someone they can talk to about how they feel. Keep your feelings in check as much as possible. Children respond in kind to the anxiety of their parents and teachers. Let them know that you are sad because of what happened but that you will be all right.

4)”Look for the helpers”: In times of tragedy, Fred Rogers is often quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Consider turning off the news (the constant barrage of images can fuel children’s fears) and focusing on stories of hope and heroism like the surgeons who operated on the wounded, the security guard and former Marine who risked his life to unlock a door and saved dozens, and the man who cared for an injured stranger and ushered him to safety.

5)Be an ally: Because the identities of the victims and perpetrator may reflect their own, LGBT, Latino, and Muslim children may feel especially vulnerable and will need support from the adults in their lives. As parents and teachers, we are in a unique position to model for children that we value all human life, that diversity is what makes our country great, and that, to quote Lin Manuel Miranda, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” Our work in equity and diversity takes on increasing importance as we raise the next generation to be compassionate, kind, and loving.

I feel a deep sadness as well as outrage over the Orlando shooting. It makes me even more grateful for the little one who has been entrusted to me. I want nothing more for her than a world in which she can be her true self without fear of harm, and I’ll do everything in my power to make that a reality. For me, and perhaps for you too, that begins with speaking up.