How to talk to kids about gun violence | Buffalo NY Tops Market
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How do we strike a balance between honesty and shielding when we discuss Sunday's mass shooting in Buffalo?

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I’m at a loss. Saturday’s mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York grocery store is all over our local news. Not surprisingly, it’s the number one topic of conversation since it occurred about 45 minutes away from where we live in Western NY. In fact, I used to have an office not far from the store.

My oldest son (11) already started asking questions about the incident on Sunday. We told him something bad happened but we didn’t get into the details yet.

Then, a shooting at a California church. And a Houston flea market.

We try to be as honest with our kids as we can about the world around us. We don’t want to shelter them, but we also don’t want them growing up too fast either, so we try to strike a balance. They already have enough to worry about—school, sports, relationships with their friends, figuring out who they are…

But on the flip side, we don’t want them to resent us for keeping truths from them either. So when the news of the mass shooting started to spread, my head started spinning. Do we tell them? Do we tell the oldest, but keep it from the youngest (7)? Will they just hear about it from their friends at school? Wouldn’t it be better if they heard it from us? Will this be traumatic for them? Will they be afraid to go shopping with us or to other public places?

They know Buffalo isn’t far away from us, so this will hit very close to home when they hear where it was. This wasn’t just something on the news that feels a million miles away. This one is real.

Like any other topic, if and when we do have this conversation, we’ll talk about it from a reason-based perspective, which includes asking questions like, What have you heard about it? and telling them what really happened (with their age in mind, of course), as well as engaging in a discussion about their feelings.

But the inevitable questions like, “Could this happen here?” or, “Why did he do it?” or, “Couldn’t anyone stop him?,” give me more apprehension, because yes, it could happen here. It could happen anywhere, and it does—at an alarming rate that baffles every other developed country but ours, the land of the free and home of the guns.

It’s entirely too easy for people to get their hands on mass-casualty weapons like the one the gunman reportedly used. And there are hate-filled people everywhere, whether we choose to see it or not. The gunman had so much hate for people who were not like him that he felt he needed to gun down strangers working and shopping in a supermarket. And no, he couldn’t be stopped by the person armed and trained to stop him. The hate-filled mass shooter was going to succeed in his planned attack, and anyone in his way would pay the ultimate price.

And they did.

So how do we calm the fears of our kids who understand this and wonder if this will happen to them? How do we make this a teaching moment without causing them to look over their shoulders whenever they come with us to the grocery store or a movie theater, or to the mall?

Sure, we could cite statistics and tell them the probability of this happening to them. But that never works. Grown adults are still afraid to fly in an airplane, even though it’s been explained to them dozens of times that flying is safer than driving. That’s just white noise to kids and won’t make them feel any better. Kids are all about irrational fear—ghosts, monsters, the dark—so what can we say to address this one?

In my experience, we tell them the truth if we feel they can understand and process it.

As parents, you know best what your child can or cannot handle, whether or not they’re mature enough to hear these truths about the world, and only you can provide the comfort they’ll need when they ask the tough questions or verbalize their fears.

But I also think it’s important that we reassure our kids as best we can, by telling them that the person who did this is in jail and can never do it again. Yes, there are lots more like him who have the potential to attack, but with kids, it’s best to focus on the incident itself.

You may find it helpful to address your child’s fears of it happening again by setting a plan for what to do in such a situation. How should we react? Where would we hide? How would we get there? And while these are the worst kinds of conversations to have, you’re helping them feel prepared, just in case, will help them feel less powerless and more in control.

This is a scary topic, no doubt about it. But ignoring the news of Buffalo, California, and Houston isn’t the answer. Have the conversation if you feel they can comprehend it. Help your child understand that hate and bigotry are wrong, which is especially important as cis white parents raising white kids.

They’re going to find out it’s a dangerous world, but your guidance can make all the difference.

Kevin Davis is a columnist and activist focused on topics associated with life as a nonreligious American. He's a father of two boys in a predominantly Christian town in Western NY and writes about the...