I almost didn’t write this post. There are so many people talking about what happened in Newtown and I hesitate to throw my voice in the mix.

There are news stories telling heroic stories of teachers saving lives. There are pictures and names of little children and school staff who have been taken from this world. There are people calling for stronger gun control and others crying for better mental health coverage.

I’ve seen mothers come forward with heartbreaking honesty about their own children’s mental health. I’ve seen countless articles about how to talk to your children about what happened, and just as many saying not to say a damn thing.

Friday morning I drove my first grader to school and kept my preschooler home sick with me for the day. On our way home I was going to pull into my neighborhood gas station to fill up my car, but found it completely taped off – and full of news media and police cars. I found out that earlier that morning there had been a carjacking and a shooting. At the gas station by my house. The one where I get gas at least once a week.

It shook me up. Within a couple of hours, I heard about the school shooting. Sadly we’ve heard plenty of these stories – about mass shootings at universities, high schools, a shopping mall, a movie theater. They are all incomprehensible. But this one felt different. An elementary school. With innocent babies.

I watched my twitter feed and online news sites as the facts unfolded. I couldn’t turn on the TV because my 4 year old was home with me. I’m actually grateful for that – I didn’t need to see those horrible images any more than she did.

We picked my first grader up the moment school got out. He was excited to see me hours early (he usually goes to after-school care). All I wanted to do was get them both home. But I stopped at the gas station on the way home (the yellow tape was gone) and with PTSD-like anxiety I locked my kids in the car as I got the pump ready and then locked all of us in the car as it filled up.

How could the world have felt pretty safe just a few hours ago and now I was afraid? Damn it.

We went home and in my attempt to have a normal, fun afternoon I took out the painting supplies and easel and we listened to Christmas music while the kids painted Christmas scenes. They had fun and had no idea what had unfolded earlier that morning. I had already decided there was no point in telling them what happened. They are too young and chances are pretty good that no one else their age is going to tell them about it.

But I did talk about safety that evening. Calmly and matter of fact, I asked Alex what kind of drills they have at school and how they work. He told me about severe weather drills and fire drills. I was curious about where they went and how well he knew the procedures. And finally, when I asked if they have any other kind of drills, he remembered “internal lock down” drills and walked me through it.

As he explained it step by step, I envisioned his classroom under attack, just like the stories I had been hearing from Newtown. I asked what would be a situation that would call for an internal lock down  to which he replied, “like, maybe if a stray dog got in the school, or … a bad guy. But that would probably never happen.”

Right. Probably never.

I talk to my kids fairly regularly about what to do if they get lost, how to handle someone being a bully or what to do if someone is trying to touch them or get them to touch them inappropriately. Always trying to strike a healthy balance of educating and empowering without scaring them.

So Friday night, when the topic of bad guys came up, I talked to them, briefly, about what to do if there was a bad guy. It included hiding, running and playing dead. Yes, playing dead. Just like animals do when there is a predator (they know quite a bit about the animal kingdom). Without prompting, both kids showed me they know how to play dead, being very still and keeping their eyes closed. They thought it was a bit funny and didn’t seem to internalize the conversation or at all worry that a situation like this might really happen to them.

But for me, knowing what happened at Newtown, it was bone chilling. I hope they never need to use that information. But I felt it was important enough to tell them and seemed to fit the conversation. It really could save their lives some day.

Now what?

Everyone heads back to school tomorrow. I’m seeing friends talk about telling their kids tonight before they go to school in case they possibly hear about it from the other kids. But I would argue that everyone doing this “in case” is going to cause the children whose parents don’t want them to know… to find out.

In a few hours we’ll be heading to the school Christmas Concert and I plan to check in with a few of the parents from my son’s class to see if they told their kids. Then I’ll make a final decision on if I need to give him any information at all. If I do, it will be very, very limited and not include the fact that children or teachers died.

If any parents read this, I’d love to hear how old your kids are and what decisions you are making on what or how to talk to your children. Because at the end of the day, I know we will each do what we think is best for our kids…

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9 Responses to “and then I taught my children how to “play dead””

  1. lisa neary says:

    Melissa, my boys are 14 and 16. By the time I’d picked them up that awful day, they’d already heard the news. I asked how, and they said that kids are online all day with their iPhones and had been following the story. Given their ages, we had a specific and frank discussion. The 14 year-old and i have talked quite a lot about it since it happened. Given his age, he said “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to Sadie (our dog).” I said, “multiply your love for her by 1000 and that’s how much parents love their kids.” He said, “If I were a parent, and lost my kid like that, I couldn’t go on.” I said, “but what if you had other kids?” He said “Yeah, that would be hard. You’d be trapped in hell.”

    • Missy says:

      Lisa, thanks for sharing. It’s so different with different ages – even between my 5 and 7 year olds, on what they can process. Interesting to hear how your 14 year old is thinking about it, and the comparison to the dog.

  2. Amy Miller says:

    We told our girls (ages 9,6, & 4) in the car on our way to dinner on Friday night. I’m certain the 4 y.o. Didn’t comprehend this in the least. We told them the man who did this was sick, and also not able to hurt anyone else. We made sure to tell the girls that all of their friends were safe. I told the girls that their teachers would always work hard to keep them safe and we talked about the wonderful first responders who were on scene so quickly and told kids to cover their eyes on their way out of the school.

    I knew that over the course of the weekend we would be with adults who might discuss the shooting, or we’d want to discuss as parents, and I wanted the girls to have the calmest version I could muster. I thought it was important to focus on the safety aspect as well. The girls asked a few questions, and I plan to take a little private time on Monday to learn what they may have heard at school. I did tell them that not every parent would want their kids to know, so they were not to talk to their friends about it unless a friend brought it up first.

    Interestingly, we had a pre-recorded phone message from the school superintendent yesterday assuring parents of school safety plans and drills and expressing solidarity with the school and families in Newtown. I thought that was really well done. I had mixed emotions when my girls’ school and principal was the location our local tv station used to get parent reaction and school response on the Friday evening news – too close to home…,

    • Missy says:

      Amy, thanks for sharing. I appreciate hearing how you dealt with this with your kiddos. I can only imagine what that was like seeing the principal on tv in front of the school. Although better an engaged principal than one with their head in the sand…

  3. My b/g twins are 9. First, thank you for sharing your story. I have kept my kids away from the news and need to share the bare minimum tonight. I now plan to focus more on the drills they do at school (thanks to you) and not much on what happened. I know that as third graders there will be peers and older kids who know what happened. I wish that wasn’t the case because this is the kind of thing that steals innocence. This evil monster not only killed so many innocent angels, he killed a little something in each of us.

  4. Nicole says:

    I told my 9 year old daughter the bare minimum. I felt I needed to tell her because I knew we would be in social situations where it would be brought up. And then in church today, the Pastor prayed for the families and even mentioned some of the details (some that I hadn’t told my daughter, but she wasn’t really paying attention to the Pastor at that point). I was glad I told her. My concern about school is that there are probably parents who haven’t sheltered their kids at all from the scary details. And I have no idea if her teacher is going to say something about it. If students are talking about it, she may feel the need to say a few things. I didn’t want my Emma to be totally unaware.

    • Missy says:

      Thanks Nicole. Interesting about church. I struggle with the “unaware” piece being a good thing or a bad thing. Such a tough place to be. Thanks for sharing how you managed this.

  5. […] Mama: and then I taught my children to ‘play dead’  {‘Always trying to strike a healthy balance of educating and empowering without scaring […]



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