When tragedy happens we search for guidance, and for leadership. Never has this been more true than in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that occurred last week at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. But we must speak about it. It’s absolutely imperative that we do. And no one understands this more than our President and the First Lady. They have stepped in and up in their roles as “parents and chiefs”, leading us towards the light of understanding, comfort and healing. Earlier today First Lady Michelle Obama, a fellow Chicago mom like me, shared her personal words about parenting through this ordeal in an open letter to the country, detailing a path towards better conversations with our children regarding their health, their safety and their future. She tweeted the link, but the full transcript is available HERE.
An open letter from the First Lady to parents on talking to your kids about Newtown: OFA.BO/jYtt6J
— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) December 21, 2012
I was so appreciative of the chord that Michelle Obama struck with her consoling words. The reminder of the great influence we as parents can have over our children’s emotional health and well being was needed for so many wrestling with deep pain about the events at Sandy Hook.
“And as parents, all of us can take the time to hold our kids close and talk with them about the things that truly matter: our love for them, the importance of extending that love to those affected by this tragedy, and how that love truly defines our great American community.”
Her letter was a perfect starting point to help parents struggling to find the best way to initiate conversations about this difficult subject matter with their young children. However, I want to add to what she said with a suggestion of my own that I learned many years ago working with a group then called Music Theatre Workshop, now known as Storycatchers Theatre. When I moved to Chicago back in the early nineties I started performing with the group. It was a theatrical job, my first union one at that, but it was more than just theatre, we toured violence and drug prevention musicals throughout the Chicago Public Schools. What was very unique about the work that we were doing with MTW was that we embedded ourselves in a school for about a week. We would perform Act 1 of our show Someone You Can Trust for various classes the first few days and then we would go into their classrooms and have open discussions about violence, family, drugs, peer pressure, consequences and more. Mid week we would perform Act 2 followed by additional trips back into the classrooms for continued discussions. The conversations didn’t end with our departure though. Professional counselors were made available to children to continue the self and community exploration that we initiated with our work. The program was successful because not only was our theatre solid, so were our discussions. We were able to draw out so much information and insight from the children with our group talks. It was all thanks to the policy of Meade Palidofsky, director of (MTW) Storycatchers Theatre, that our discussions with these children were led with open-ended questions. An open ended question is one that requires interaction from the respondent, not just a “yes” or a “no” answer. It seems so simple but yet, in practice, it takes a lot of thought and concentrated effort. It proved to be one of the greatest lessons of my professional life that I use and teach to this day, especially when tragedies such as Sandy Hook occur.
When talking with your kids about the events of Newtown in particular and violence in general you want to respect their experience. You can best do that by asking them to share it with open-ended questions. Instead of asking “Have you talked to your friends about what happened in Newtown?” Try, “What have you heard about the events in Newtown?” Instead of asking, “Were you sad when you heard about the deaths in Newtown?” Try, “When you think about the shootings at Newtown how do you feel?” But be careful not to tell your kids how they feel with statements like, “You must feel scared after the news about the shootings in Newtown.” Or questions such as “Doesn’t it make you sad to think about the kids who died at Sandy Hook?” These questions seem innocuous, but they can in fact shut communication down with a child. Let them instead tell you how they feel. In truth there is no right or wrong reaction, but you can’t address their true feelings unless you give them room to identify them.
We all feel powerless when something as senseless as the tragedy in Newtown happens. To be honest I feel powerless every morning when I turn on the news and hear of yet another child that has been hurt or killed in Chicago. We have had 117 already this year. It’s infuriating. But even though we are not Super Heroes who can stop bullets with our bare hands, we aren’t powerless to give aid either. Sharing feelings of support and love are very powerful acts that truly help. You can empower your children by encouraging them to give voice not just to their feelings, but to their own ideas about safety and grief. You could ask them, “If you could do something for the families who lost children in Newtown what would you do?” or “What do you think schools should do to help keep children safe?” Then help them find ways to put their ideas into some form of concrete action.
In my concerts I tell children that one of the most powerful things that they can do, no matter what age they are or what size they are, is share their smile. A smile is incredibly powerful. It can change a person’s entire day when they receive it. Plus it’s free! Anyone can turn the corners of their mouths up and share a 100 watt smile with strangers, acquaintances, friends and family alike. It’s easy, but it matters. It’s a concrete action that even the smallest child can engage in and understand. And in the wake of a tragedy such as Newtown being able to take action is very healing, and let’s face it, we all need to heal.
For more tips on talking to your kids about violence and the Newtown tragedy please go HERE.
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