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Hiding Horrible Things From Our Children

Photograph by Getty Images

I was 10 years old when I got off the school bus, turned on the television and saw live coverage of Columbine High School. I saw kids running from the school. I saw armed guards standing outside the lunchroom doors. I saw parents falling to their knees in the parking lot. I saw too much that afternoon.

When my dad came home, he told me to stop watching it, asked me to go play in my room or to do my homework. I watched my math problems bob and weave off of my worksheet, felt my stomach twist itself into knots over and over again. I don’t want to go to middle school next year. I don’t want to go to school ever again. I’m never leaving this house.

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That was 14 years ago today, and I can still see myself sitting on my knees in our living room, the blue carpet fibers grinding into my skin. I remember how scared I felt, how terrified I was. And I can remember a week or so later when my elementary school held its very first “Intruder Alert” drill. A special “code” announcement was made on the intercom, and my teacher ushered us all into the very back corner of the room while she closed blinds, locked doors and turned off lights. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to wedge myself between my classmates—the ones that were giggling about this break in our 5th-grade routine—while holding my breath, praying that this would only ever be a drill.

The kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma had more than just a drill. Looking at those collapsed walls, and the search and rescue teams gingerly moving about is terrifying. And I'm an adult. My children would be even more terrified if they too sat in front of the television and stared into a pile of bricks and wondered if there were kids like them, underneath. I know how terrifying, because that was me.

Columbine was the first time I ever saw an act of violence unfold in front of me, details pouring in throughout the afternoon. It was the first time I realized that this could happen anywhere. The summer before, I was in Paris with my dad and siblings when we heard about the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. Thousands of miles away, I was frightened for my hometown—frightened for the people I may have known at the park that night—but it still didn’t hit me. It never occurred to me that violence and destruction is this thing in our world that, unfortunately, we can not control. That night, sitting in our hotel room, my fear vanished as soon as my mom picked up the phone. “Mom’s OK,” dad whispered to us, “now go to sleep.” He put the TV on mute, and I went to bed satisfied. Everything was OK.

Seeing the images for myself really ended any innocence I had.

But watching the news develop on my own? With no one there to turn off the TV and explain, in 10-year-old terms, exactly what was happening? I panicked. I spent the next few days terrified about what middle school was going to be like, what my sister’s high school was going to become. I would’ve been worried no matter what, even if my parents had sat me down and told me “This is what happened in Colorado today,” but seeing the images for myself really ended any innocence I had. I was now aware that there are people in this world who will do evil, terrible things, no matter the consequences. I was also aware that you cannot stop bad things from happening sometimes. Most times. This wasn’t something I read in a history book or something I saw in a movie; this was real, and it was on my television set. And it changed my life.

And now, in the wake of the devastation in Oklahoma, and weeks after the awful explosions at the Boston Marathon, the topic is up again: violence, trauma and how to explain it to our children.

I’ll be honest, I’m in no hurry to talk to my 6-year-old and 4-year-old about these events. As far as I know, they have no idea what’s happened and, for the moment, I intend to keep it that way. Because, at 6 years old, I know that Chloe does not have the emotional maturity to deal with this. I know that she will ask thousands of questions, that she will want to know why someone would do this and how children safe in their school could have been injured so horribly. And I know that we will spend the next few weeks convincing her that it’s OK to go to the park or the library or the aquarium and then back to school. It is the same reason we never mentioned the awful tragedy at Newtown to her; she would have never have felt safe anywhere again.

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Talking to her about strangers? I'm 100 percent certain she needs to hear that. Teaching her about her body and what’s appropriate? We’ve been handling that since she was 4. Telling her about these senseless acts of violence and random acts of God that she, at 6 years old, can’t control? No dice.

What about you? Do you talk to kids about these types of things? How did they react?

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