This is what it’s really like to talk to your kids about school shootings

As a parent, preparing your child for school can be a difficult endeavor. Aside from equipping them with all of the necessary materials for success, you have to steady them for potential social obstacles, like bullying and peer pressure. Many parents, however, are experiencing a categorical shift in how they approach school preparedness with their children. Now, folded into lectures about homework and grades, parents are engaging their kids in serious discussions about school shootings and lockdown protocol.

According to The Guardian, there were 94 school shootings in 2018, including the tragedies at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and Sante Fe High School in Texas. These deadly incidents have bolstered public debates about gun control and mental health resources, and have sparked youth-led, internationally recognized movements, including #NeverAgain and March For Our Lives.

Prior to this, however, the subject of gun violence against our youth had been loudly protested in areas like Ferguson, Chicago, Detroit, and other predominantly Black and brown cities. The reality is, school-related gun violence has been a growing stain on our country’s fabric since the early 20th century, yet we still haven’t witnessed a real solution.

As we continue to wait for our government to enact solid legislation that could secure our children’s safety, the onus has been placed on schools and parents to teach our students how to navigate a chaotic, potentially fatal situation (think: the lockdown nursery rhyme that went viral last week).

While schools across the nation are holding active shooter drills throughout the school year, parents are tasked with reinforcing the protocol at home. These conversations surpass “tough.” And in reality, they’re a matter of life and death.

But it’s important to understand the complexity of these discussions, both the subject matter and presentation. Simply “talking to your children” is not nearly as cut and dry as certain school personnel and elected officials would have you believe. Race, nationality, class, location, and disability are just a few of the factors that can impact how a hypothetical disaster like this is processed by a family.

Safety procedures can certainly attempt to protect all those in danger equally, but for a worried parent, these things can present themselves as horrifying obstacles, leaving them asking, “Will my child truly be protected?”

Some may wonder how you even begin to approach this subject with a child, in some instances as young as 3 years old. That’s why HelloGiggles talked to 15 parents about their different approaches to discussing school shootings, lockdown, and the profound effect this kind of conversation has had on their families.

I’m not teaching my daughters to “be nice” to everyone.

“All schools in Texas held a moment of silence [recently] for the victims of the Santa Fe shooting. This led to my first-grader and preschooler asking what happened in Santa Fe when I picked them up. I told them that there was a school shooting there on Friday. Eliza asked me why someone would shoot a school. I told her I don’t know.

I did NOT follow up with, ‘But that’s why it’s important to be nice to everyone you meet’ or ‘This is why you should be everyone’s friend.’ Because that is not the lesson I need my daughters to learn.

They do not need to learn that maybe if they are nice enough, one of their classmates won’t try to shoot them one day. They need to learn to trust that instinct in their gut that tells them when someone is not safe. They need to learn to speak up when someone shows signs of danger. They need to learn that sometimes people do horrible things, and it is not their fault.”

— Caitlin, Texas

How do you put into words your worst fear?

“The school has done drills with the kids and [my son’s] new school also has what seems to be a pretty solid system in place. We’ve touched on it with him ourselves, but he’s a really sensitive kid and we don’t want to send him into a panic (he’s still afraid that every bit of rain portends a hurricane), so we’re approaching this very, very carefully.

Any bit of parenting is always ‘new’ to the parent, no matter what the issue is. But this feels entirely new and that’s terrifying because we’re all learning it collectively. No one has any idea how to talk to their kids about it, largely because…how do you put into words your worst fear and then send them off to the place you just warned them may be a place where they can die?

So yeah, if there’s a big difference in how it was for us as students versus how it is for us as parents, it’s probably that I have all kinds of inspiring speeches for dealing with everything from gender identity to sexual harassment to flunking math. I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined I’d have to talk to my kid about how not to get shot by a classmate.”

— Carla, Florida

My 7 year old is desensitized to the gravity of a school shooting.

“It was one of the fortunate days that I had off of work to get [my son] off the bus. I asked how his day was, and of course he was two steps ahead and muttered, ‘Fine.’ I asked if their were any highlights, my usual tactic to pull more information. ‘Oh! Yes, I got to choose a sucker today for being good and super quiet and still during the lockdown.’ I shuddered. His school had started enacting scheduled and unscheduled lockdowns not long after [Sandy Hook] and it made me heartsick.

Growing up in the ’80s, it was the Cold War Warnings. Hide under your desk with your hands over your head. But other countries were our enemies then, not the child sitting next you or the adult down the street.

I asked him how he felt about the lockdown. He shrugged and finished his pile of Goldfish crackers. ‘It’s easy. We all squish together and hide behind the big bookshelf and turn the lights off. And we can’t move. Even if we have to go to the bathroom. And we can’t giggle.’

‘Do you know why you have lockdowns?’ I asked. ‘Sometimes people enter schools to hurt other people, like beat them up or yell at them,’ [he said]. ‘Is that all?’ ‘Yeah, oh and sometimes people might have guns.’

My 7 year old is desensitized to the gravity of a school shooting. For now. I pray every day that he never knows the fate of all the young lives lost so far.”

— Monique, New York

The presence of guns in our schools has always been our reality.

“We’ve been talking to our kids about gun violence since they were 6. To be honest, the presence of guns in our schools has always been our reality, even though you don’t hear a peep about it on the news. My twins are sophomores in high school now. They’ve sat in classes with an armed student before and had no idea until years later. That terrifies me, and when I said as much, one of my daughters responded, ‘Yeah, it’s scary, but at least it’s not random. If someone is strapped, it’s because they’re defending themselves from a certain somebody.’ That’s what I’m up against. Daily.

Now, with the tragedies in Florida and Texas, schools around here are being forced to finally face the issue head on, but it’s still not enough. My kids’ school has School Resource Officers, but they’re more interested in flaunting the obvious power dynamic than actually protecting these mostly Black and brown students. They’re slow to deescalate fights and quick to threaten arrests for every little thing. If something happens, will my very brown, very Latina girls be rightfully protected? I hope so, but I’m still not sure. That’s what scares me most.”

– Marielise, California

We practice the drills at home.

“I talk to my son about this regularly. We all prep my son, niece, and nephew with what we do during the sit-down drill. He doesn’t know the term ‘lockdown.’ My kid is in a mixed class, K-1, with 60 kids, 30 of each. There are three teachers and three aides. The first-graders go in the supply room, kindergartners go in the fire room. If they sit quietly, maybe their principal will visit and they can get a BUG ticket (Brilliant Understanding Good) and get a prize. They do the drills twice a year, but will be doing them more.

We practice, at home, listening to the teacher, being quiet, and taking up as little space as possible. It’s extraordinarily stressful.”

— Shanelle, California

My son assumed because he goes to private school that it could never happen.

“My oldest is in sixth grade and is in private school. He’s watched the most recent school shooting coverage with us and assumed because he goes to private school that it could never happen. My husband even backed up this fallacy and I quickly relieved them BOTH of that mindset. I told him, ‘This could happen anywhere, but it’s important not to live in fear.’ Black children have enough to be concerned with, so I stress to my son that he cannot live in fear.

It made me feel old, to be honest. I still think of my kids as babies, so to have to explain the perils of the world to my son — a child I pushed in a stroller while canvassing for Obama during his first election — was odd. It showed me that my children are growing up and that the conversations are changing. They’re becoming more nuanced and that’s a good thing but still…odd.”

— Eliza, Iowa

School security measures don’t work, either.

“The first time Sugar told me about a school lockdown, she was 3. There was a drive-by in the neighborhood. I told her that people were trying to hurt each other and the teachers were just being careful. The next time was in sixth grade. She was annoyed at missing testing and I was angry. This wasn’t neighborhood violence, but one student threatening another.

I felt powerless. Kids have access to weapons, and there’s so little the school can do to stop them. She told me the reactionary security measures after the threat were worse than the lockdown. The school installed one metal detector for 1,300 kids. The line to get through snaked outside the building. Some kids worried about a shooter mowing them down on the sidewalk. I felt angry again because I had to argue, basically, against security. The way they were trying to make the school safer was failing.”

— Shannon, Ohio

Will his teacher be able to save him, to save them all?

“I haven’t been able to have the talk with my son yet. Because of his speech and developmental delay, concepts like what to do in extreme danger are just out of his grasp right now. His teacher is excellent, though, and we’re lucky to have her. She’s not only been able to successfully drill all the students regardless of their disabilities, but she’s been extremely patient with us parents, coaching us on how to communicate dangerous circumstances in whatever way suits our kids best.

No parent wants to have this conversation with their kids, but I admit that I wish I had a way to know for sure that my son understands what’s happening. I cry at night sometimes thinking about these things. He’s prone to outbursts whenever he feels scared or threatened, like so many of the other kids in his program. Will his teacher be able to save him, to save them all? This is why I’m so furious with our government. They have the power to put a stop to all this so that we can go back to focusing on our children’s development, and they just plain won’t.”

— Brook, Georgia

These conversations physically make me feel like I want to throw up.

“I started having the lockdown drill conversation with my kids when they started elementary school. They’re now 10 and 12, so it’s all they’ve ever known. At their schools, they are called lockdown drills, no trying to disguise them or fluff it up. Which I appreciate. I think we started talking about it after each kid had their first drill. I asked them how it was explained to them, what they thought it was for, and what happened during the drill.

As they grew older, the conversation got more in-depth and more specific. They know about the shootings at the high schools that have been happening across the country. Especially in Parkland, because their cousins go to the other school in that town. They were pretty freaked out by that one. We also talk at home about why students are protesting. My middle-schooler doesn’t talk about the drills much anymore, because they’re just part of school life for him. They’re normal. It happens twice a year, similar to fire drills.

Having to talk to my kids about lockdown drills, why we have them, what they need to do, and what could happen during an active shooter incident makes me feel sick to my stomach. It physically makes me feel like I want to throw up. It’s enraging that this is something that happens all the time here in the U.S. It’s so preventable, and people in power do not care. It’s painful to think that I might send my kids off to school any morning of the week and never see them alive again. It’s crazy that we’re expected to just have to LIVE with that now.”

— Brina, North Carolina

We told her that she should try her hardest to be kind to everyone, especially the bullies and outcasts.

“My daughter is 12 years old and in the sixth grade. The first time we had this talk was around the fourth grade. As parents, we were not sure how to approach the situation, we did not want to scare her but also wanted to make sure she was aware that these things can happen.

Rather than focusing on where to hide or escape routes, we spent the time talking to her about the importance of kindness. We told her that she should try her hardest to be kind to everyone, especially the bullies and outcasts. We wanted her to understand that she has the power to change someone’s day and that you never know what kind of issues someone can be dealing with.

Originally it was a very hard topic to broach, but we tried our best to turn a very negative conversation into a positive. We can’t change gun regulations on our own, we can’t personally fund mental health programs or eliminate poverty. But if we can be a little more understanding and compassionate, maybe we can help at least one kid not go down that road.”

— Ron, Washington

She was prepared as if it were an inevitability.

“When we sent our daughter to college last year, we made the assumption that we were in the clear. We live in an area that may not be the quietest, but never in a million years did we feel as if we had to worry about a classmate opening fire in homeroom. Fights? Sure, we worried about those. But nothing so serious as a bullet.

After Parkland, my partner and I were so rattled. She reminded me of all the shootings that took place at universities in the past — Umpqua Community College just up the road, Virginia Tech, Florida State — and without thinking, I called [my daughter] in a panic. I asked her if her school had a plan and she assured me they did, and that she knew exactly where to go both on and off campus should anything go down. She was prepared as if it were an inevitability, and that broke my heart even more. I hate this. ”

— Marsha, Oregon

We made it as easy as possible.

“The tough discussions happen in the minivan where eye contact is minimal, and my daughters are relaxed. The latest talk happened after our first kickboxing class together. My 12 year old asked if she could use what she learns against her [13-year-old] sister. Had to clarify that fighting back is for if they are being sexually or racially harassed, or if someone was trying to abduct them — or if they find themselves face-to-face with a school shooter.

I asked, ‘When can you use your phone at school?’ They replied, ‘We aren’t supposed to.’ That lead to us talking about the times teachers and parents will not mind if they use the phone: in the case of a school shooting. We talked about being as calm and clear as possible when on the phone and being as specific as possible.

This entire discussion about safety encompassed race, gender, sexual harassment, school shootings, and abduction. It was very conversational, lasted about 10-15 minutes as we drove to lunch, the girls asked a few clarifying questions, and in just asking them now, they said it was a ‘pretty easy talk.’

As far as being tasked with this? I knew when we decided to adopt internationally/transracially that there would be talks surrounding race that I would/will be woefully unprepared for if I didn’t listen and learn more.

School shootings feel similar. Tough, necessary discussions about safety that include my husband chiming in about toxic masculinity and how stupid guns are. We live in Silicon Valley, and I feel the schools are trying to address this through programs at early ages to address social development and wellness. And right now, I am much more concerned about them being young, black women.”

— Heidi, California

I found out my daughter was worried about me.

“My daughter is in second grade. We talk about how there are people out there who make horrid choices and she needs to be safe and do as the teacher says and practice. She took it all in and was like, ‘Mom, you’re in deep trouble. Your special ed students can’t run and hide too good; you might all get hurt.’

It’s scary to send her and know that the odds of her not coming home one day continue to increase every day, but even scarier that she considered I might not either because of where I work and who my students are.”

— Nico, Massachusetts

My niece’s face is a sight I won’t forget anytime soon.

“I’ve had to give ‘The Talk’ to my daughter (age 7) about race. I had to also give ‘The Additional Talk’ about gunmen in schools. I sweated it out, but what it boiled down to was this: find a quiet, dark area, make yourself tiny, and do not move or make a sound. My 10-year-old niece was listening in and to see her face harden in fear AND resolve…well, it’s a sight I won’t forget anytime soon.”

— Tiffany, California

The kids with less money just aren’t going to get the protection they deserve?

“I live in a pretty well-off area, but my three children are split up among two schools. My youngest just started at the high school close by, while my two younger kids are in an AP program at a school that is in a poorer neighborhood, out of our normal zone. Both schools are approaching the issue differently and it’s clear that it has almost everything to do with the amount of resources that the more well-to-do school can afford. She has more security than my older kids do, and it makes me angry. So the kids with less money just aren’t going to get the protection they deserve? Am I supposed to be okay with that?

I’ve talked to all my children about what to do in the event of an emergency. My oldest daughter looked at me and said, ‘Some of my classrooms don’t have great hiding places, so we’ve got to barricade the doors. If I have to protect my friends, I will.’ She’s 15.

I don’t want to pull my kids out of that school. The program they’re in is the best in the county and they worked their asses off to get in. Plus, how will I feel pulling them out and leaving the rest of those innocent children behind – many who come to our house after school and go on trips with us on the weekends?

My kids are making the choice to risk their lives for their classmates, and I have to make a choice between their education and their safety, both of which should be guaranteed. Nobody wins, and I’m mad as hell. I’m about to be mad as hell in the voting booth, too.”

— Alexandria, Virginia

While it’s easy to feel powerless when talking to our kids, we must remember that remaining engaged in our school districts and government — both at the local and national levels — is essential for change. Demand that school and government officials recognize specific issues that jeopardize our children’s safety and settle for nothing less than specific, tangible solutions. If they aren’t willing to provide those, then vote for someone who is.

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