"We're making a whole page of pictures about death and dying and deadly stuff," my son B says in an affected, tough-guy tone.
"Yeah," his brother K agrees, in the voice of a monster truck rally announcer, "a whole page of boy stuff."
They are 8 and 6 years old, respectively, and this is their interpretation of masculinity?
A little more than 24 hours after a young man in Newtown, Conn., gunned down 20 children, their caretakers and his own mother, hearing my kids equate death with "boy stuff" takes the breath out of my lungs.
"Do not overreact," I tell myself. "They are not assassins in the making. They are, by all accounts, good-natured children trying on masks, as children do."
While my wife Tracie and I are learning to embrace our kids' rather stereotypical boyness (you know, the near-constant potty talk, their obsession with certain body parts, their seemingly boundless physical energy and their excessive decibel levels), we refuse to shrug off incidents of aggression, verbal or physical, with a flippant "boys will be boys."
At the same time, I know that my own tendency to have knee-jerk, shut-it-down reactions to anything that sounds like anger or aggression will do nothing to help my kids learn how to deal with those feelings. So instead of censoring this morning's exploration of "deadly stuff," I decide to keep quiet and see what happens next. "Think of it as play therapy," I tell myself. "Listen and see how it unfolds."
Standing at the kitchen sink, with my back turned to my kids, I force my hands to continue prepping snacks for them to take to Tracie's office later today, where they will be helpers for a therapeutic play group for children who have autism, a role they enjoy more and more each time they participate.
Behind me, the boys fill a page with sobbing faces, X-ed out eyeballs, and talk bubbles that say things like, "You're uncool," and, "My grandpa died," and, "I am very weird," and, "Earth is dead." Above the top floors of a skyscraper, barely visible under a scrawl of water, appears the caption "Empire State Building."
Clearly, my dudes are working something out here. They feel powerful, sketching death over and over again, controlling how it happens and when.
That they are drawing this collaborative art piece on a blank page of their elementary school's phone directory is both coincidental and exquisitely painful. They don't know yet about Sandy Hook Elementary School. They do know, however, that two of their own classmates lost their mom to cancer last week. Maybe this is the fuel behind their ink?
The boys flip through the directory, looking for another blank page. "Let's make volcanos this time," K suggests. And they commence exerting their control over ranges and ranges of mountains erupting molten lava, marking them with warning signs that read, "30,000oF."
How can I fault these guys for wanting to exercise control over the unpredictable? Haven't I been trying to do the same thing since I heard about Sandy Hook? Isn't that one of the things we find so terrifying about such tragic events: how they erase our illusion of safety and remind us that anything can happen at any time?
While my children make themselves feel powerful by controlling death and destruction, I remind myself about the statistical probability that when I drop them off at school on any given day, I can trust that they will emerge unscathed that afternoon. This is how I attempt to restore my own sense of safety and control.
I cannot, however, shake my gut-wrenching, grief-swollen awareness of the parents whose children were murdered in Newtown, people who today are experiencing the loudest silence I can fathom.
Their incomprehensible loss highlights how very fortunate I am to be here right now, challenged by yet another parenting conundrum.
But I've been noticing over the past 24 hours that seeing my kids through a you're-here-but-you-might-not-have-been lens doesn't feel like enough to me. Merely hugging my kids a bit tighter, or taking a few extra moments each night to watch them as they sleep, feels a little too "I've got mine" and not enough "what can I do to help you who have lost yours?"
Oddly, those people who lost the children and adults they loved are the reason I am letting my kids play out their scenes of destruction right now. Their loss has reminded me of the revolutionary necessity, the moral imperative, that we parents commit ourselves to raising peace-making, emotionally responsible adults.
But how do we do this?
I believe the first step to helping my sons become men who understand and manage their feelings is to encourage them to express those feelings in ways that do no harm. So for now, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, I will let my boys unleash their power on the page.
Later we will talk about how death makes us feel.
After that? I suspect that if I follow my kids' leads, setting my own fears aside, the next steps will reveal themselves right before my eyes.