There’s been another school shooting. This time at the Colorado STEM school Highlands Ranch, less than five miles from the first mass school shooting that our generation of parents remembers, at Columbine. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, there hasn’t been another. Though, if it’s been more than a few weeks, that seems disarmingly unlikely (pun intended).
While we are devastated to hear of another school shooting, we aren’t particularly surprised. This in itself is disturbing. We fear we are becoming collectively desensitized to such horrific violence so close to home. Our kids seem to be too. This particular shooting stayed above the fold for only about a day. Many parents probably didn’t even talk about it with their kids because it just didn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary. After all, since Columbine just 20 years ago, there have been more than 230 school shootings, not even counting those at colleges and universities. It was less of a discussion and more an observation in our houses. “There’s been another.”
Rates of anxiety in kids and teens are on the rise. It seems like a reasonable hypothesis that the increased incidence of mass violence in schools, on college campuses, and in churches might be one factor. After all, our kids are generally much safer today than we were growing up. The incidence of fatal accidents at home, in the car, and on the playground falls each year as we find new ways to prevent, cushion and protect our kids from injury and death. Despite attention grabbing headlines, kids are much less likely to go missing or be abducted today than in the 70’s and 80’s when those faces stared out at you from the side of the milk carton at breakfast.
Yet, even as we can better guarantee our kids safety in the day-to-day routine, it has become harder to assure them that they are safe from the bigger, more terrifying “possible but not probable” dangers of floods, fires, twisters and earthquakes (hello climate change), or of mass violence at the hands of a peer. Add to this the constant “news” stream of social media and many parents feel helpless to control the threat of a flood of information. One little boy in Ellen’s practice recently listed off a litany of fears before she could even finish asking him what worried him: “hurricanes, tornadoes, shootings, sinkholes being born under my house….”
As a general rule, kids are more afraid of the monster in the closet than of the terrorist across the ocean. This was very helpful for parents raising kids in the U.S. during previous wars, both hot and cold. The “bad guys” were far away and even if they were to attack there would be warning, time to put all the drills and practice to use and get to shelter. The only news kids were exposed to was on at 6pm and they were rarely watching without their parents. There were no pings, tornado or flash flood warnings in the palm of their hands. There were no mass shooting drills where the attacker might be a classmate. Maybe our kids are more anxious because it often feels like the terrorist is in the closet.
So what are parents to do?
For starters, while much of the religious right would have us believe thoughts and prayers are enough, we respectfully disagree. Yes, we are in favor of common sense gun control. But more than that, “thoughts and prayers” as a solution is based in both bad theology and bad psychology. It’s not that we disagree with praying for the survivors or the shooters. It’s that this approach does little to help us make sense of violence, for ourselves or our kids, and tells us even less about what to do about it.
When a school shooting or any awful thing happens, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about who the good guys and bad guys are. But telling our kids only that the perpetrators of violence are bad guys does little to protect them - from violence or from fear of it. A deep progressive Christianity teaches us that there are no good guys and bad guys. We are all good and bad mixed together. Like Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, we have free will from God and that allows us to make choices, some good, some bad, some even horrific. God lingers in our lives, always, to lure us toward the good but we don’t always follow.
There are always some who do. In the words of Mr. Rogers, they are the helpers we encourage our children to look for in the midst of fear and tragedy. And we hope our children will grow up to choose more often not only to do good, but to be those helpers. There does seem to be a shift in the media recently to focus on the helpers, on the brave ones who tackle the gunman like Kendrick Castillo did, sacrificing his own life to save others. It’s good to focus on the helpers and to minimize the attention that the shooters get. It’s good but it’s not enough. Not for our kids. If our solution is that they should be prepared to run toward gunfire or look to their peers to save them, this is no solution at all.
At the root of anxiety is a feeling of helplessness, a loss or lack of control. Maybe anxiety in kids and teens is on the rise not just because the world seems scarier, the threats closer to home, but because they feel powerless to do anything about it. Because they don’t have a moral and spiritual framework to make sense of it.
As parents, we often go directly into “fix it mode.” When something bad or scary happens, we jump straight to reassuring our kids why it’s unlikely to affect them. When they struggle we often leap to solve the problem for them. Except the problem with this approach is that, while it may make us feel more in control and may ease some of our anxiety, it doesn’t make our kids any less anxious or scared or overwhelmed or unsure of themselves.
What our kids need is for us to start by acknowledging whatever feeling they are experiencing, to not be desensitized to the anxiety or worry. To talk with them about good guys and bad guys in more complex ways so they have a way of understanding people’s choices as being part of a much bigger “we’re all in this together.” Then, they need us to punt the problem solving back to them, to help her but not to do it for them. To give them some control.
We need collectively to work on this with our kids. In Bless This Mess, we give you tools for talking about goodness and badness and for problem solving with your kids. Yet, there’s a step before “fixing.” Let’s work to not become so conditioned to violence, that we skip right over the emotion. Then, let’s give our kids a chance to try their own solutions before fixing for them. After all, what we’ve been doing doesn’t seem to be working.
On Wednesday, some of the kids in Colorado walked out of what was supposed to be a memorial service for Kendrick Castillo. They were offended and upset at a politician making the memorial a platform for gun control. They weren’t done with the feeling. They didn’t want another adult, an outsider, giving them solutions. The kids from Parkland Florida, meanwhile, have taken problem-solving into their own hands. They’ve built platforms for discussion toward action. We need to start listening to our kids. We need to give them back power, choice and control if we want to decrease anxiety and violence in our schools. We need parents to start a movement to empower kids to start their own.
~ Ellen nd Molly