My children and I took our first trip to India over the holidays, accompanying my U.S.-born husband who hadn’t been back to visit relatives in over 20 years. The trip was eye-opening. We traveled all over India – making our way through big cities and tiny villages as we visited relatives and introduced our children to a world very different from the one they know.
On the sixteen-and-a-half hour flight back from Delhi to Chicago, my husband and I discussed how we sincerely hoped that the 3-week experience would help shape how our children see the world. We wanted them to never take for granted what they’ve got in the relative safety and security of their lives in Omaha.
Arriving back in the U.S. early Thursday morning, I dutifully called my mother to let her know that we had made it back safe and sound. Even though I’m now in my 40’s with a family of my own, my mother all but sits by the phone waiting for me to call and let her know that I’m okay. It was she who first told me what had happened at Millard South High School. I quickly thought about whether I knew anyone involved. I then selfishly reflected on how fortunate I was that my own three children – all Millard students – were out of harms way and with me at the time of the shooting. No – my oldest won’t start high school until next year and she won’t be at Millard South, but I was nevertheless grateful that she and her brothers didn’t even have to experience the ensuing lockdown that I’m told had Millard students under desks and in the dark until the threat had passed.
And then I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to the actual events of the day and what it must have been like to have been there. To be the parent of a Millard South student on the first day of school after the holiday break. To be the principal or the assistant principal. And yes – even, what it must be like to be the parents of the student responsible for the devastation.
I’m sure many of you must have reacted the same way. The reason I’m so sure is that in a certain sense, I’ve dealt with this sort of tragedy before. Not at Columbine (although my family did move to that area only shortly after the country’s worst high school massacre), or at any of the handful of other school shootings that have taken place over the past several years. My experience in helping parents (including myself) cope with this sort of threat to our children’s (and our own) sense of safety dates back to 2001. You see, at the time of the reported terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers, a section of the Pentagon, and thousands of lives, I was the pediatrician responsible for content creation at a prominent national parenting media company. With a sincere desire to do anything I could to help parents in the wake of the attack, I sat down and wrote an article on the morning of September 11th entitled Helping Your Children Cope with the News of Reported Terrorist Attacks.
As I sat down this morning to figure out what I should write about the Millard South shooting that would be of any help or comfort, my September 11th article kept coming to mind. While the advice I offered back then was in response to a tragic event of unprecedented and enormous proportions, the sad fact is that in the minds of children, violence is violence regardless of the scope. At it’s core, the following advice adapted from what I first wrote in 2001 applies every bit as well to violence in 2011, and will hopefully provide parents with several things they can do to comfort their children and help them make some sense out of senseless tragedy.
Personal safety. Any time senseless tragedy occurs, it’s important to offer immediate reassurance in any way possible – starting with the reassurance that your own family and friends are okay.
Routine. I have always believed that a predictable routine and consistency are important in helping children feel safe in their world. Never is this truer than in the context of tragedy. When our core sense of security is shaken, maintaining regular routines such as going to school and work may seem disrespectful, insignificant or difficult, but they give children (and adults) back some sense of structure and security.
Details and distance. One of the most striking aspects of the aftermath of September 11th was the intense media coverage. Without officially counting, I must have literally seen the planes crash into the twin towers a thousand times. The fact of the matter is that its human nature to watch. While I was on the other side of the world the day of the Millard South shooting, I’m sure that the coverage was (understandably) intense. As a parent, it’s especially important to also understand, however, that young children who repeatedly witness the news coverage of a shocking event are likely to be left feeling frightened and confused and may even feel like they’re re-living the experience. In this day and age of 24 hour media coverage, this is as good a time as any to turn off the television, at least when young children are around.
Someone is in charge. One of the fundamental aspects of raising children who feel safe and secure in their world is providing them with a sense that there are people in authority making sure that everyone is going to be safe. While a school shooting inevitably threatens our own parental sense of security, it’s helpful to focus your child’s attention (and your own) on what is being done to keep your child safe. Despite last Wednesday’s shooting, school remains one of the safest places your child can be.
Perspective. Despite the fact that I provide parenting advice for a living, I have yet to figure out how to explain the need to maintain perspective without seeming to minimize the tragedy for those involved. While its important for all of us who weren’t directly related to or involved in the school shooting at Millard South to remind ourselves that the overwhelming majority of schools across the country are safe (just as we had to remind ourselves on September 11th, 2001 that almost all planes and buildings were still completely safe), I can’t bring myself to say it without acknowledging that this provides no solace to students, friends, colleagues and family of Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar. I only wish there was something more I could say that would help.