The Newtown, Connecticut school massacre has affected us all, but it hits particularly close to home for those of us who have school-aged children—and even closer for those of us who are still reading bedtime stories, doing tuck-ins and encouraging little ones to eat vegetables so they can get strong.
Nearly every channel brings us trauma experts that provide perspective on what we should tell our kids who have watched or listened to the news report along with us. Most are right. We should talk to them and allow them to share what they are thinking and feeling. Depending on a child’s age, they lack the context, life experience, and cognitive abilities to effectively process such events. Often children ask what did the victims do to deserve what happened.
In young lives, occurrences are believed to be a result of volition and we reinforce these beliefs regularly. There is no ice cream today because I didn’t behave in church. The reason we can’t watch TV is because we didn’t put our toys away. In a child’s mind, things happen because of something they did. Only over time and with the guidance of adults are children able to discern that they are not responsible for all that happens in their young worlds.
The question remains, however, “Why?” Right now there are only theories. For me, the more important question is, “What are we going to do so this does not happen in the future?”
I don’t mean in terms of school security. This may be the easiest part to address. We have been here before. The children of the 1950’s and 1960’s had not only fire drills, but bomb drills in anticipation of atomic and nuclear warfare. As a Midwesterner in the 1970’s and 1980’s, tornado drills were added to our school repertoire. After Columbine and Virginia Tech, the 2000’s brought schools active shooter drills. For those schools that have not developed them, many will now institute a protocol. Metal detectors will be finding their way to an elementary school near you.
As a Chicagoan, I’m greeted nightly with casualty counts. Children are often in the crossfire, sent to hospitals or to morgues. Routinely I pass curbside memorials with teddy bears, balloons, and bottles marking the spots of tragedy. The children who witness these shootings are just as impacted as the children in Newtown.
The problem is bigger than violent TV shows, video games, music and movies. They may influence someone (we all are influenced by every experience we have) but they do not cause behavior. As with processing trauma, we must debrief our children and assist them in processing entertainment media. We must discuss with our children the difference between games, movies, music, and reality. Provide your children with your values and your expectations of them and utilize the game or song or movie as a contrast or compliment to them. Help them understand what is good for them and your family and community. Here you have the power; you determine what games they play and what they watch and what they can hear and how they should understand it.
Communities must decide when enough is enough. A story that got lost last week among the stories about the mass shootings in the suburban Portland mall was that a 7-year old and an 11-year-old were arrested in Portland, Oregon for attempting to car jack a woman in a church parking lot. Found in their possession was a loaded .22 caliber pistol. Ages 7 and 11. Church parking lot. Enough?
America must decide whether it wants to put children first. In Chicago there are many groups that have formed to address violence. We must also have a political agenda so that we clarify that violence is not tolerated and youth-focused violence prevention programs are funded as a priority. This can happen.
In a generation, drunk driving changed from being something that people joked about after a weekend of clubbing to something that was frowned upon and punished with prison time. American culture changed to address this. Angry parents whose children were killed senselessly demanded change. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers – M.A.A.D.) With the same fervor, our communities can prevail to address violence, and particularly gun violence. Angry parents are needed again to demand change. Newtown, Chicago, and Portland need you. Our children need you.
Yan Dominic Searcy, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Interim Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Chicago State University.