Should I Talk to My Child About Gun Control?
By the age of four, children begin to comprehend that the world can be a dangerous place. They know that bad things can happen to people and that sometimes, there are people who do bad things. This awareness, of course, varies from child to child based on their individual maturity and on their individual experiences.
While the goal is to keep young children innocent of this knowledge for as long as possible, we live during a time where tragic events such as school shootings become part of the daily conversations many adults are having and therefore exposure to these topics may happen either inadvertently through overheard discussion or directly through older siblings or friends with older siblings.
In some cases, like today’s National Student Walkout, a planned protest of the lack of gun control, parents whose children attend a school with a population that includes older children, parents were given the opportunity of having their young children opt out of school for the day. As would be expected, parents are confused about what choice to make. On the one hand, choosing to keep their children at home, may, but not necessarily, avoid a conversation about guns, gun control, protests etc. And it is true these conversations may be more appropriate for the elementary and middle school years. But if children hear from other children who do attend, about the events at school that they missed, discussion of these topics may be inevitable.
Unless a child has already been traumatized by violence or the topic of violence, I think there is a case to be made for having the discussion about what this walkout is all about, whether the child attends or not.
That said, here are the things that need to be considered. Starting with the children, these are the questions that I would want to answer: What is the age of the child? Has the child been exposed to tragedy or violence? Does the child have a greater sensitivity to topics such as these? Will a discussion trigger fear and anxiety present from a previous experience? Is the child able to articulate his or her fears and ask questions? Has the school provided suggestions about how to talk to your child about the event? Based on the answers to these questions, parents should assess how well they think that their child can handle the protest and/or conversations about it and decide accordingly.
Secondly, I would ask myself the following questions: What can I say to reassure my child that they are safe? Can I present a picture of the world that focusses on the positive? Can I emphasize examples of what is being done to reduce violence and the importance of being part of the solution? Can I deliver these messages in a calm and confident voice?
A conversation with children four and over might go something like this: Have you heard anyone talking about gun control? Do you know what gun control is? Gun control is a set of rules that makes sure that everyone is safe. Some people think that we need more rules about guns. Some people who think that way are having a protest about it. Do you know what a protest is? A protest is like a parade, but it isn't about a celebration or holiday, it is about wanting to change the rules. We are lucky because in our country, the United States of America, we can have a protest to try to change the rules.
For many children depending on their age, this explanation may be enough. For others, the introduction of the topic may elicit more questions. It is important that children know, even when we don't have all the answers, that there are no questions that they cannot ask.
I grew up in the 1950’s when the threat of nuclear war was most certainly a topic of conversation, much like the threat of gun violence is in America today. Most public buildings had prominent signs indicating that they were bomb shelters and schools had regular bomb drills in the way that schools today have monthly fire drills. While sirens blared we would take shelter under our wooden desks and cover our heads until the alarm stopped. A particularly vivid memory as a first grader was a timed drill that had every child leave the school to run home in an effort to determine if children should go home or shelter in place in the event of a nuclear strike.
These drills were scary and led me to voice my fears to my mother, who I recall was not very sympathetic. In some ways her, “that’s life, get used to it” attitude was more upsetting than the actual drill and I learned to keep my fears to myself. Not an ideal outcome. As with any conversations that we have with our children, what we say is important, but how we say it is equally important. If for some reason a topic is especially emotionally charged for us, we may need to get some clarity about our own feelings before broaching the topic with our children. Discussing the subject with family or friends often helps us to come to grips with the message we want to impart. In extreme cases, it is necessary to speak with a counselor or therapist, to get the support we need.
As a parent recently said to me, “I am my child’s sun, moon, and stars, and I feel a tremendous responsibility not just to keep him safe, but to make sure that he knows that he is safe.” The conversation about a gun control protest may be the first of many difficult discussions that you will have with your child, but it most definitely will not be the last. Speaking honestly, simply, with age appropriate language and an emphasis on your commitment to keeping them safe will help children to cope with the many challenges in life that will come their way.