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Talking to Kids about Gun Violence

Talking to Kids about Gun Violence

By the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles

An excerpt from When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith-filled Responses for Tough Topics, edited by Bromleigh McCleneghan and Karen Ware Jackson (Chalice Press, 2019)

“Mommy, will bad guys come to my school?”

This was the question that my son asked me repeatedly the summer before he began kindergarten. As parents, my husband and I don’t shy away from difficult subjects. We talk with our children about violence and injustices often, including the all too frequent school shootings.However, hearing his innocent yet concerned five-year-old voice ask if it would happen to him caught me completely off guard.

“Mommy, will bad guys come to my school?” These were my son’s words, but what I heard him say sounded more like the words of another son. “Mommy, am I the lamb to be sacrificed?”

In the Genesis story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–14), Abraham follows God’s directive, trudging up the mountain beside his son tothe site of the pending sacrifice. I imagine Isaac being just as concerned as my own child. The weight of the wood on his shoulders notunlike the weight of an oversized backpack carried by a five year old. Isaac looks around as he climbs higher and higher with his father and doesn’t see a sheep anywhere. If Isaac is old enough to carry the wood, he is old enough to understand what is happening. Finally he asks,“Father, the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb?” His question must have brought Abraham to tears; Abraham can barely answer hisson. He simply says, “The Lord will provide the lamb.”

The cover of "When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith-filled Responses for Tough Topics"

Modern readers of this Genesis narrative are often appalled by what seems like Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his child. As much as weare disturbed by it, the truth is that our country routinely decides there are causes worth sacrificing our children. Children are collateral damage inour country’s engagement of drone warfare.(1) And then there are the staggering numbers of children sacrificed so that American adults cancontinue embracing their constitutional right to bear arms. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that twenty-one children are injured or killed, sacrificed on the altar of the gun, every single day in our country.(2) Approximately 18,500 children are shot and eitherinjured or killed each year in the United States.(3) Most of the mass shootings and some of the deadly episodes of domestic violence make thenews. We don’t hear about the suicides until it’s a child we know. Whether these deaths are murders sparked by white supremacy, misogyny, orhomophobia, or are accidental— in which an improperly stored or misused gun found in the home results in injury or death—thousands uponthousands of children are affected each year. Responsible gun owners may have perfectly reasonable justifications for owning guns, but even the most mundane of those must be weighed against the incredible, shocking, sinful volume of gun injuries and deaths.

Like Abraham trudging up Mount Moriah, we look to God to protect our children and save us from this unimaginable sacrifice. We offer our thoughts and prayers, and yet we continue to give almost unfettered access to these weapons so they can be used as “protection.” Our actions are at cross purposes with our prayers, because the more people who have guns, the more children die.(4)

School shootings in particular can overwhelm parents with a fear leading to silent despair. We don’t want to talk with our children about thereality of gun violence because it may feel like it’s becoming our own reality. We want to keep them tucked away inside an innocent protective nook.But we can’t. In the era of lockdown drills, gun violence already is our children’s reality, whether we discuss it with them or not. We don’t want tocreate anxiety or fear, but it’s critical we talk with our children about school shootings and other forms of gun violence because they need us toanswer questions and shape the narrative of the story. We can provide our kids with a sense of normalcy and security and give them resources to address fears that arise.

Crafting the Conversation

We have this conversation in our family every time a major mass shooting occurs, starting with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting when our eldest was only three-and-a-half years old. Here’s how we do it: Make time to talk. When our kids were younger, I only needed a few minutes. Now that they are in elementary school, I carve out bits of time on several consecutive days. Every time a question arises, or I notice an atypical behavior (crying, clinging to me, change in appetite or sleeping patterns), I stop what I’m doing so we can talk. I begin with the reminderthat as their parent, I will do everything in my power to keep them safe.

  • Tell the story in an age-appropriate-way tailored to your children’s needs. When my literal-minded son was in preschool, I used three fact-based sentences: “A person entered a school who didn’t belong there. He used a gun to hurt and even kill students and teachers. The police found him, though; he won’t hurt anyone else now.”

My daughter is far more sensitive and reactive, so when I talk to her, I emphasize ways we keep our home and school safe. I offer concrete examples such as keeping doors locked, showing identification when we enter her school, and the importance of taking lockdown drillsseriously. I encourage her to tell her teacher if she ever feels unsafe or threatened or if she hears a classmate talk about hurting other students.

In middle school and high school, I expect our kids will express their own opinions about what causes people to be violent and will suggestways to address it. We’ve seen how powerful teenage voices are in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shootings. I hope to validate theirsuggestions and encourage them to work for cultural change.

  • Pay attention while talking. I tune in to their behavior and emotional state to observe any changes. My kids have lived a trauma-free life thus far, so most fears subside with time and parental reassurance. I know this might not be the same for children who have experienced trauma or a personal loss.
  • Be honest about your own feelings. I share how I’m feeling so they know adults are not immune from grief and fear. I talk to them about God’s presence in the midst of suffering and how God shares the pain of those who are I remind my children that while God is a powerful protector, God is also a grieving parent whose own son died from violence. God never wants other parents to feel the same sadness.
  • Answer the “why did this happen?” question. This always comes up, and I don’t have a great answer for you. Sometimes people do bad things and hurt other people, I say. It might be because they cannot control their anger or their We all get scared and angry, but when we feel these emotions in such extreme ways and we have a gun, dangerous things can happen. I tell them that this is a reason why we are a gun free home. I do not to reference the shooter’s mental state because most people suffering from severe mental illnesses hurt themselves rather than other people. I don’t want to add to the stigma of people living with mental illness.
  • Review nonviolent conflict resolution options. This is an opportune time to remind children that we do not use violence as a solution to our (See “Further Exploration” for our favorite kids’ books on this topic)
  • Write legislators. While I don’t know why shootings happen, I usually know how they happened. A parent or adult hasn’t safely secured a gun in the home and the shooter accesses it. Weak state laws or private sales allow for teenagers to legally buy Soas part of our healing process, our family always writes letters to elected officials asking them to tighten gun laws.This is an especially important step for teenagers, as it helps them be part of the solution. Teaching older children and teenagers to work for change strengthens their resiliency.
  • Continue with normal We try our best to move on with homework, piano lessons, and softball practice. I know that our routines will provide children with comfort and a sense of safety.

The best resource and response is simply being present for our children. As parents, we don’t have to fix the tragedy or shield our children from future danger. We do need to acknowledge the pain in the world and the fear in their hearts by meeting our children where they are. Through our own grief and discomfort we can talk to them about gun violence and school shootings.

Talking with our children about gun violence is a subject we can no longer ignore, praying it won’t touch our children’s lives. It already has. My children experience lockdown drills so frequently in elementary school that they no longer think anything of them. The possibility of gunviolence has been normalized as part of their educational experience. We need to shape the narrative, and they must know we are available forconversation and questions.

We also need to do all we can to keep our children safe now: One thing I have done for the past six years to help me feel a bit more control over my children’s safety is to ask about unlocked guns before my children visit another home. I ask before playdates, birthday parties, visits with out-of- town family members, and church dinner parties. No one is excluded from this lifesaving question.

My children are old enough to know they should not touch a gun if they find one. However, I’m old enough to know that my children don’t follow directions 100% of the time.(5) I will happily endure 15 seconds of an awkward conversation if it keeps my child alive. I usually ask through text or email, depending on how the invitation is offered. I reply back with these words: “Thank you so much for inviting us over fordinner. We don’t have any food allergies to worry about, but two of us are vegetarians. Also, one thing we always ask before visiting a home for the first time is if you have any unlocked guns. No judgment, we ask everyone! We look forward to seeing you soon.”

I am not willing to sacrifice my children on the altar of the gun.

God’s question was not whether Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his child, but rather for what Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his child.  Surely that is the question of us today. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to continue in this relationship with God? What are we willing to sacrifice to continue in relationship with all the other gods in our life?

The story of the binding of Isaac teaches us that God does not demand the blood of children. God tells us not to sacrifice our children. Not now,not ever. When the voice of the Lord, the God of justice and compassion, cries out, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him,” Abraham responds in obedience and faithfulness. We, too, must respond faithfully to God and also to our children by refusing to sacrifice themto the gods to whom everyone else is sacrificing their children. We are called to choose—to choose between a God of violence and a God who comes to us embodied in a child, ready to take on life’s most difficult conversations.

Further Exploration

Additional resources you might find helpful for talking with children about gun violence:

  • Videos from Sesame Street Workshop about talking to children after traumatic experiences.
  • Video from The Fred Rogers Institute, which includes words from Rogers himself in addition to helpful hints for parents.

Children’s Books about Nonviolent Conflict Resolution:

  • The Secret of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman
  • The Hundred Dresses, Eleanor Estes
  • Simon’s Hook, Karen Gedig Burnett

The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles is wife, mother, peacemaker, and priest learning to navigate life in the suburban wilds of Dallas. After working asEpiscopal Peace Fellowship’s executive director for six years, Allison reentered parish ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth in 2018.She currently serves as the priest-in-charge of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hurst, Texas.






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