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The Difficult Conversation I Had With My Fifth-Grader

Yesterday's events prompted difficult conversations between parents and children. Here's what that looked like at my house as well as resources to help you navigate it.
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Law enforcement investigates the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Nineteen children and two adults were killed. Mikala Compton-USA TODAY NETWORK

Yesterday was hard. And I, like every parent, had to figure out how to explain to my fifth-grader what happened in a school just like his, while still processing it myself.

The whole drive to the carpool lane yesterday, I thought about my son’s typical school day. I thought about the video his music teacher, who only sees them once a week, sent parents on Monday: his class proudly played “Beauty and the Beast” on keyboards as she recorded their remarkably not terrible final performances of the year.

I was also keenly aware that this wasn’t the first time we’ve talked about gun violence at school. In fact, as I prepared to write this, I went back through my old files and found a note from seven or so years ago.

“My 4-year-old knows how to hide from a shooter. He learned it at school,” I wrote. “My tiny person knows that if a ‘bad stranger’ comes, ‘teacher locks the door and we play statues in the closet.’”

He told me last night he’s gotten better at hiding since preschool.

This is the second time this year alone that we have talked about it, and each time it is just a little more devastating.

Earlier this year, a student brought a gun on the bus that transports both middle school and elementary students. It was briefly at my son’s school, since the bus drops off there.

I read the letter from the school as my incredibly tense child sat on the couch next to me. We talked about what to do if someone had a gun at his school, about listening to his teacher and following her instructions carefully.

“Ms. Taylor isn’t that big, and she hates fighting. How is she supposed to protect all of us?” he demanded.

“I … don’t know. But I know she’d try real hard if she had to,” I said.

“That’s brave,” he said. “I get scared too easily. I’m not brave.”

“Sometimes it’s braver to admit you’re scared, and ask for help,” I told him.

“Can we snuggle on the couch?” he asked. “Today was very anxious for me.”

Tuesday afternoon, he asked if he was allowed to have weapons at school after I told him what happened in Uvalde. (We would rather tell him about these things and talk about it than have him hear about them thirdhand at school.)

“No, buddy, that would get you kicked out of school,” I said. 

“Well, if this keeps happening, it’s gonna come to my school eventually,” he said. “What am I supposed to do?”

I explained what I learned in the active shooter trainings I’ve been to—try to run first, hide if you can’t, then fight if you have to.

“But promise me you’ll always try the first two first,” I said.

“Sure, but just because these fists aren’t made for punching,” he said.

“I was thinking more along the lines of throwing a chair at the shooter, or a book,” I said before showing him how to break someone’s nose with the flat of his hand.

And no, absolutely none of the baby books prepare you for talking about how to tell your kid what to do during an active shooter situation. I’ve found my go-to resource for talking to kids about tough subjects is the Momentous Institute. If you find yourself floundering (as I did), they really do offer some great guidance here and have been providing more on their Twitter feed, too. (Mental Health America of Greater Dallas also has resources available to parents.)

As we sat on the couch after our impromptu hand-to-hand combat lesson, my son—ever the solutions guy—had an idea.

“I really think it would just be easier to say some people shouldn’t have guns, and maybe it should be a little harder to get them,” he said. “Hasn’t anyone thought of that?”

I told him that if he felt it was a good idea, he should think about how to share it. I then tried to reassure him that so many people in charge of running Dallas ISD are working really hard to try to make sure he and his classmates are safe. He asked if we could pray for the families dealing with the tragedy, and we did. I’m anticipating he might have more questions later, and I’ll try to answer them as honestly and appropriately as I can.

But I don’t know whether I can tell my child that he’ll never encounter what the children at Robb Elementary did on Tuesday morning.

I don’t know how to tell him it won’t happen, because that might be a lie, and he knows it, too.

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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