Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking to Children Who Don't Care

In the aftermath of great public tragedy, we are drawing our children closer, debating whether or not now is the appropriate time to talk about gun control, wondering what it would be like to be in that circle of tragedy, giving thanks for our lives, our children's lives, feeling guilty for petty complaints but having them none the less. Our conversations as we react to tragedy are many, but the conversation that strikes me the most is the one about how to talk to our children about tragedy

I realize that thinking about how to talk to my children is a privilege, a privilege that as of yesterday, too many parents will never get again, and by exercising this privilege, I'm hope I'm not undermining or diminishing their losses in any way.

You ask, how do we talk to our kids about tragedy, and I wonder, do our kids care?

My kids don't care.

Yesterday, for my kids, is not the day they tried to understand great tragedy. It's not the night they went to bed worried about the world. If they remember yesterday, they will remember it as the day they finally found out about Gangam style or the day they beat Bowser or the day they learned about Jamestown.

They don't understand.

Maybe it's because they're too young, maybe they need to be eleven or sixteen instead of nine and seven and four. Maybe it's because they lack sensitivity, maybe I ruined their sensitivity by being too macabre or reading too much original Grimm or losing my temper too often. Maybe they would care more if I had watched the news and cried all day instead of watching the news for 20 minutes, carrying a heavy heart, and reading some articles after they went to bed. Or maybe developmentally, they are just not at a point where they have a lot of empathy yet.

Some children care. Some children, I'm sure, care very deeply, and the parents of those children probably need to discuss how to talk to their children, but to put it quite bluntly, my kids don't care.

We had conversations.

How did he get in the school?
He just walked in.
Was he going to see his mother?
No, he was going there to kill people.
But it matters, like if he said he was going to go sing the kids a song, he could hide the gun in his guitar case, and then, papapapappppppppp. Otherwise, he'd need to use a pistol. What kind of gun did he use?
I'm not sure, something powerful.

(Note, that conversation was before I learned what had happened to the shooter's mother)

Conversations like these are why I typically avoid discussions of tragedy with my children. Eventually, however, these things come up--the Holocaust came up during dinner with a friend, 9/11 came up when we were researching the world's tallest buildings--but I avoid these conversations because my children lack the ability to understand the severity, the seriousness of these events. When child soldiers come up, they ask to move to Burma. They think it sounds cool. They're not equipped to know any better.

I try to remember my reactions to the news as a child. I remember Ollie North and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Apartheid--all of which happened when I was older than my children are--but the only crime involving a child that I remember is the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling. Although I was twelve when he was kidnapped, I'm not sure that I cared that much. I cared in the reverential way we were supposed to care, I worried about strangers in the way we were supposed to worry about strangers, but did it really hit me emotionally, no. Did I really wonder how he felt, how his mother felt, was I capable of empathy, not really.

Like myself as a child, my children get, to a certain degree, the seriousness of tragedy, but they don't get it. They don't feel it. They don't wonder how those involved felt.

They cannot be empathetic yet (at times, yes, they can but not like an adult and not consistently), but lack of empathy is only one of the reasons I avoid these topics. I avoid them more because I don't want their minds and memories and souls to normalize these events.

Yesterday's news was not heavy on their minds. It didn't come out in their play. It didn't come up while they were falling asleep when their concerns and dreams often float to the surface of their mind.

If they remember the tragedy of yesterday at all, they will probably remember it as just another massacre in a string of massacres, a string of tragedies that are just normal in this country.

Connecticut, Oregon, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, Aurora..  that's at least five since this summer. I'm not sure whether or not they actually know about all of these massacres, but they've heard about enough of them.

They've heard about enough of them that they probably think it's commonplace, enough that if I'm not here to remind them to be reverent, that they will just forget, that it won't matter, that they won't care.

So the question for me is not how do we speak to children about tragedy, but how do we raise children in a place where tragedy feels so commonplace?

I read once that if children learned about endangered species before they were allowed to fall in love with nature that they would become apathetic to the idea, that they would assume there was nothing they could do about possible extinction. If on the other hand they were kept from this fact until they were about nine, they would be more inspired to pursue change.

I'm not sure if that's true, bu the jig is up, they've heard about extinction and terrorism and genocide and child soldiers and grade school killings.  

And I don't know how to balance the knowing with the lack of caring.

Many people yesterday said it was a day to grieve rather than politicize, others said it was a tragedy not to talk about gun control.  I don't have the answers about which conversations are appropriate and when, but it's always important to talk about change. Maybe if we talked about change enough after Aurora, we could have prevented Connecticut, maybe we couldn't have.

It's a complicated conversation--gun control, mental health, food additives--there is no easy solution or we would have found it already, but it's critical to talk about change, and that is what I want for my children.
I want them to pursue meaningful conversations about change. I don't care if they agree with me--there's more than one answer, more than two sides to this debate.

I just want them to care enough to talk about it.

Now, they are glib about tragedy because they are young, but I worry that as they develop empathy that they will continue to be glib about tragedy because it's so seemingly common.

Taking to them wasn't difficult because tragedy doesn't bother them yet, and I can only hope that one day it will.

I can only hope that when they learn about violence or unrest, they will want to act differently, to make a change no matter how small. I can only hope that they won't take violence for granted and forget to care, that they won't become infected by it.