How To Talk To Kids About Gun Violence
You're not alone if you feel uncertain about sending your child back to school this fall in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Mom Nikkya Hargrove explores how parents can prepare the entire family.
- Maria Lysenko
- Written By
- Nikkya Hargrove
As my kids’ first day of second grade approaches, I feel myself pushing away the fear and pushing down the anxiety that has begun to bubble up inside of me. From Robb Elementary School in Texas to East Kentwood High School in Michigan to Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., and all of the school shootings that do not make the news, our kids, teachers, and school staff need our help to end gun violence.
When a child as young as five is shot sitting in their classroom, we must pause and then take action. Yet, we often feel helpless, unsure of what to do, which march to attend, which lawmaker to write to, or how we should show up to make a difference when taking a stance against gun violence. First, we must understand, and then we must act, even when that “action” seems so small, like preparing our home for the what if’s of sending our kids to school. When firearms are the leading cause of death for kids and adolescents, we must do more than talk about gun violence; we must figure out what we can do to prevent it from happening again.
When the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened, I was journaling, sitting in a Starbucks, not too far away, lamenting my recent negative pregnancy test. When the news alert pinged my cell phone, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said out loud, ‘not again.’ I just sat there, wildly unsure if choosing to have a kid was the right thing to do, given that they could so easily, so senselessly be taken from me with one stroke of some random person’s index finger. That day, December 14, 2012, Scarlett Lewis dropped her son Jesse off at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, expecting to pick him up later that day. But he never made it home.
Today, Scarlett lives out Jesse’s legacy of always choosing love while promoting social and emotional education in schools through The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, which helps students feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. As parents of school-aged children, there is so much we can do to prepare ourselves and our kids to head back into the classroom this year. Scarlett says, “We are responsible for our children’s safety. It’s vital for us to understand the most important aspect of school safety is the culture of the school and an emphasis on teaching relationship skills, self-regulation, and coping skills. A school with a loving, caring, compassionate and connected culture can prevent or reduce grievances that can ultimately lead to violence. This culture takes specific effort and prioritizing – some schools already do this, others can improve.” Scarlett goes on to say, “A comprehensive Character Social-Emotional Development program is imperative. The opposite of anxiety is a positive action, and there is something you can do. Ask someone at your children’s school if they have such a program, its name, and how often they teach it. Learn about it and find out if they have a corresponding home program so you can practice these essential life skills alongside your children. Then, spread this awareness/learning to your community - everyone benefits! The essential life skills taught reduce anxiety, facilitate resilience and provide children with the ability to thrive.”
As a community, we must collectively take responsibility for our kids’ safety. Whether they are in school in California or Connecticut, we have a job to do. Since the school shooting in Sandy Hook, there have been over 948 school shootings. I spoke with a few parents who shared how they will be handling the new kind of “talk” we must all collectively embrace - how to prepare for the unknown - gun violence in our classrooms. Vanessa, a 47-year-old mom of two and a high school teacher based in Connecticut, says we can do something with the fear. She suggests telling our own children what she tells her children and her students (the youngest is entering 9th grade), “We don’t know if this will happen to us. We hope it doesn’t, but we must take safety procedures and drills seriously. Still, we must believe that it will not happen to us, or else we will live in fear and drown in anxiety and helplessness. Be aware, tell your teachers and me if you hear anything about guns, and always listen to their school faculty in times of lockdowns as they do not tell us if it is real or a drill until after it is over. We always have to assume it is a real lockdown; this is the country we live in.”
While they’re essential, legislation and safety drills can only take us so far. The new law signed by President Biden in June is the first major gun safety bill signed into law in the last 30 years. Still, it is far from enough. Scarlett says, “The contents of the bill were positive, yet some are already in place in areas in our country seeing the most violence. The new law addresses the problem, but we must also address the root cause if we are ever going to get ahead of the issue of school shootings and the epidemic of violence raging in our country. Kids (and adults) who feel safe, seen, and celebrated do not want to harm themselves or others. This is possible for all children, but the solution will require that we do the work necessary to address the unmet needs of our children, who grow into adults.”
As parents, we must keep our eyes open to understand what our kids’ unmet needs might be. It can be social, it can be mental, or anything in between. We must be the eyes and the ears that our kids need to keep them safe, even in school. The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence lists 7 root causes of gun violence. The one that sticks out to me the most, is perhaps the most vague of them all, “lack of opportunity and perceptions of hopelessness,” - haven’t we all felt a lack of opportunity or hopelessness at some point? Sure, I know I have. One way to keep our kids safe in school is to show up, try to understand the school’s culture, and give a helping hand to strengthening the school community by being present, aware, and involved.
As Greg Lynch, 36, who runs a nonprofit engaging young people in service learning and volunteer projects, tells me, his main goal at work is “to help youth build their skills and understand the world through service experiences.” As his 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter head back to school this year, this informs his belief that we need a crash course on having hard conversations with kids. He shares, “I feel like parents and caretakers are often inclined to shield their kids (especially young kids) from the knowledge of scary things. However, I don’t think that would be doing a service to our kids in the case of gun violence and many other societal issues we face. Ignorance, in this case, seems to set people up for more harm than good. You don’t want your kids to live in fear, but you also want to prepare them for the dangers they will face in the world. I think this involves being honest, having difficult conversations, and trying to explain things in a relevant and digestible way for their age and maturity level. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like we are in a position to trust many of the adults, institutions, and systems to protect our kids and do the right thing, especially in times of crisis.” We can’t ignore that when gun violence happens, lives are forever changed.
I will continue to kiss my kids goodnight every night, reminding them they are loved. But, I will breathe a little easier, knowing when I send them off to school the next morning, my responsibility to show up for them as a mom – a Black, queer mom – is more than representing; it is shifting school culture, which includes school safety. In an effort to get to know how they experience school, how they navigate the hallways as they trek from their classroom to the cafeteria for lunch, I sometimes join them. I am the eyes and ears, walking through the same hallways I entrust them to everyday. It is only then, by my very presence, that I can bring up issues I see with school staff, their teachers, or even the principal.
For me, the Uvalde school shooting stirred up a fear that had been largely quiet during the pandemic when gun violence in America seemed to take a backseat in the socio-political world. Now my fear is alive and well, and as the summer days come to a close, I cannot help but try to quell the voices in my head around gun violence and the feeling of hopelessness that I have. We can make our schools safer for teachers and students alike. And doing so starts with us, the parents.
What can we do to feel less helpless and more hopeful as the new school year approaches?
• Read the new gun safety law and take action.
Read the federal and state level gun laws. Educate yourself so you can show up to the polls and vote for the candidate you will protect your schools and children best.
• Strengthen school culture by strengthening social and emotional learning.
There are ways to educate yourself, to strengthen social and emotional development
right at home. Check out Confident Parents Confident Kids, it’s a great place to start to best equip your toolbox at home. There are tools to help expand social and emotional growth at your kids’ school. Check out the Choose Love Movement for more.
• Keep your door open.
Allow your kids to talk to you, express their fears and their worries and don’t hesitate to share yours with them. Talk to your kids, in the most appropriate way for their age, so they understand what happens when guns get into the wrong hands. What should they do if they are at a friend's house and a gun looks real and someone is playing with it? The only way to know more about gun violence is to talk about it. Here are a few tips on how.
• Talk about school.
You know your kid best, so make note of any changes that happen within them. Talk to them about school safety drills, get a sense of what they felt or saw during the drill, and talk to them about why those drills are important. Even this seemingly small conversation can impact their school culture.
Nikkya Hargrove is a writer and Lambda Literary Non-Fiction Fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Taproot Magazine, Parents, Scary Mommy, and others.
In her forthcoming memoir, Mama: A Black, Queer Woman's Journey to Motherhood, I share the complicated story of my mother and me. After she died in 2007, she left me not only with so many questions about who she was but also with a baby boy named Jonathan. My journey as a Black queer woman hasn't always been easy, but we all have a story to tell, and this is mine.