There’s a question that has woven itself into the fabric of my dreams this week, pulling at the edges of my comfort and security. At what point do you teach your child about guns? How do I get to explain what a gun is before the world gets to him first at a time when he might understand? I’m sure it’s before toy marketers that advertise gun-like “blasters” on YouTube or the news shares yet another mass shooting, but my son is five-years-old and it’s too late. He’s seen police carrying guns. He’s learned that his favorite animals are killed by poachers with guns, thanks to the animal conservation show we like to watch.
I’ve always wanted to be the parent who had an answer for everything, even when it’s as simple as “I don’t know.” The challenge with raising a curious kid is that they ask questions. I know this trait will be invaluable later in life, but I can think of a million ways it might get him into trouble now. I know this from experience; inquisitive kids unite. I want to foster his independence and deep quest for answers, and yet, there are some things I’m not prepared to talk through.
As Brendan came walked in the door after school on May 24, I scooped him up and hugged him tight. I’d just watched the news about 21 children and adults being murdered at school and tried to hold it together, but I paced. I did the nervous mom shuffle in the kitchen and shimmied over to closer to the television, step by step. I watched the red breaking news banner flash across the bottom of the screen as the death count kept rising. I started pacing in circles thinking about how it must feel for those parents to not yet know if their kids were ok. I sprinted to the kitchen door once I heard his chirpy voice, cutting through the television chatter and the noise in my head, wondering who would murder children.
Brendan’s hug was the trigger for me to weep. I cried for parents in Uvalde who might not yet know if their child is alive. I felt relief, knowing that his heart was still beating even though he was thousands of miles away from the scene. I sensed grief and some guilt that this happened to others and we were safe.
Our hug was five seconds or five hours, I can’t remember now. He looked up and sweetly asked “mama, why are you sad?” I had no words. How can you tell a five-year-old that someone took a gun and hurt kids that were only a few years older than him. And the fact that it was in a school – a place where he should be safe.
I realize my question is not just about guns, but about anything that brings kids harm. It could be bullying, navigating conflict, belonging, you name it. Yet, the elephant in the room is obvious, especially given that this came on the heels of two other high-profile mass shootings – Buffalo, NY and Irvine, CA – and countless others that don’t make the evening news. The Tulsa hospital attack this week is mass shooting #233 for the year – that’s 1.5 mass shootings a day. These attacks are commonplace. I remember when I found out about Sandy Hook. I vividly recall standing near my car during my junior year of high school and hearing about Columbine. Still in shock, I sifted through my Jansport backpack, finding the mace my mother insisted I carry and breaking rules by bringing it and my Nokia phone in the building in case we had to call 911. I remember thinking through where I’d run and hide in our school, even though this tragedy didn’t happen on our campus… yet.
And now, we’re numb to it, both mass shootings and other types of gun violence. We build up walls blaming the “other side” for the tragedy instead of coming together to find a common solution. And as policymakers pass laws to lower gun restrictions in some states, it leaves me with more questions. If we lower the barrier to entry in getting a gun, does that make my kid safer? Will it make active shooter drills go away? Will it lower the incidences of mass shootings or stop them altogether? I’m not convinced.
I grew up around guns. I was taught about them in my late teens – never had I needed to know about them before that point. I had friends who hunted, but it wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t unusual for my friends to sit in deer stands on November weekends with their parents, but that just wasn’t my scene. There was no need to know about guns at that point. I was shown how to shoot and handle a gun by gun owners who took care when I was 18 or so.
But, to me, five-years-old is too young to have that lesson. I can barely get him to tie a shoe. And yet, if I start the conversation about guns, I’ve seen that the main takeaway he needs is to run and hide. I have to ask parents if they’ve locked up guns before playdates because, let’s face it, I have a curious kid who wants to know how everything works before having the logical reasoning skills to know that it isn’t a toy.
At what point do we share those lessons? I used to think it was when our kids are teenagers, but in America, I see that’s way too late.
Maybe the bigger question is this: how do you straddle the line of preserving any shred of innocence left in a little kid’s ethos while preparing them for the realities that they’ll start doing active shooter drills in Kindergarten.
Once someone figures that out, please let me know. I’m often more terrified of that question as Brendan transitions to Kindergarten next year than I was walking into my own school the day after Columbine. It all looks different through the eyes of being a parent.