When my 6-year old son checked out a book from his elementary school's library in September about the sinking of the Titanic, he had a stream of questions for me, but the one question that keeps popping up over and over again weeks and months later is this: Did any children die on the Titanic? The book failed to address the question, but he wants to know. Each time he asks, I tell him quietly that I'm not sure if any children died. And then I stress that what we do know for sure is that women and children were put into the safety boats first. And besides, this was over a hundred years ago. Something like that could never happen now.
The Titanic has been my own private challenge as a parent, but Sunday night, a group of parents in my son's first grade class began emailing one another to ask if other families had decided to tell their children what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, this past Friday and, if so, how much. Parents were worried that if they didn't tell their child, their child would hear about the tragedy at school from kids whose parents had told them. Many of us stated firmly that we had said nothing, that it was too much for children this age to absorb. Then one lone parent stated that she would be telling her daughter, that she did not want her child to be "oblivious" to the reality of what happened. She considered not describing the brutal shootings to your child as akin to not fully preparing them for how to react to a fire in their school. Or failing to mention that a natural disaster such as a hurricane had visited far corners of their city with devastating effects.
I wanted to scream at this woman. Oblivious to the unimaginable tragedy of a young man entering a school and murdering twenty children is exactly what I want my son to be. I drafted an email asking if she realized how very different this random act of violence toward children would sound to a 6-year old than a fire or a hurricane. I tried to explain that I feel it is our job as parents to protect our children from an evil as incomprehensible as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary school. I stated that, just as I don't show my son R-rated films or pornography, I, for one, intend to shield my child from the horror of what happened to a group of children his age in a state that borders our own.
However, I didn't press "Send."
Just as I knew in my heart that my son will hear about Newtown today or tomorrow or the next day... I knew this other mother was partially right. And that she had a courage I haven't found in myself yet to help my child understand that there are real bad guys in the world, that bad things happen, but -- most important-- he is going to be ok. A helpful note home from our school included the following advice: "Let their questions be your guide to how much information to provide." My son is very curious about whether it is actually possible for a child to die. Just the other day on the way home from school, he was quiet in the back seat of the car and then suddenly, he asked: "Mom, can kids die?"
Tonight, I will be prepared. And it might be time as well for me to find out the exact number of children who lost their lives when the Titanic slipped slowly into deep, dark waters on that cool spring night in 1912 so that -- next time -- I can clearly and compassionately share the facts with my child.