How to NOT Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings

Candlelight vigil for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary. Photo by Josalee Thrift. Parents are wondering how to talk to their kids about the mass-murder of six- and seven-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary, and about school shootings in general. My feeling, especially for younger children, is don’t—unless they ask first. I’ll get into my reasons why, but first I’ll get a few other things out of they way, so there’s no mystery about where I am on the political spectrum:

  • I believe this country has a serious gun problem that needs to be addressed at the federal level.
  • I believe this country needs to do a better job addressing the mental health of its citizens, and that too requires federal legislation.
  • I don’t believe the above two points are mutually exclusive.
  • I know that anything that can be construed as parenting advice can come across as condescending and will inevitably upset people. Just so you know, my kids are as messed up as yours, if not more so.

I also believe in data. It is this belief in data that makes me wary of discussing with my kids the possibility that a crazy man with a gun might one day enter their school and shoot people. There are many things that threaten our children’s safety. School shootings are pretty far down the list. All of the data below is from 2010 (the latest available) and comes from the CDC’s website.

For children between the ages of five and nine, the five leading causes of injury-related deaths were:

  1. Car accidents
  2. Drowning
  3. Fire
  4. Homicide by firearm
  5. Suffocation

For children between the ages of 10 and 14, the five leading causes of injury-related deaths were:

  1. Car accidents
  2. Suicide by suffocation
  3. Drowning
  4. Homicide by firearm
  5. Suicide by firearm

There is no question that guns pose a large threat to children (and adults) in the US. The dangers of guns should absolutely be taught to children. But this is different from the danger posed by guns in schools. According to a report (PDF) issued by the Department of Justice, of the murders of school-age children in the 2009-2010 school year, one percent occurred on a school campus. Although there have been 31 school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999—a devastating statistic—schools remain one of the safest places your child could be. (The media does a bad job putting this into perspective, for obvious reasons.) Now, guns owned by family members and by kids’ friends’ parents? That is an actual threat that should be discussed with your kids.

(A brief digression on schools increasing security in the wake of mass shootings: On the first school day after the Newtown shooting, there was a police officer stationed at my daughter’s school. This was apparently a decision made by the local PD, not by school administrators. It got me thinking about the logic of increasing security to protect against school shootings. First, a single officer could not defend a determined murderer with a bullet-proof vest and a semiautomatic weapon. So we need more security. How about two officers? Or six? Why not a tank? Second, let’s say the officer deterred the murderer, and the murderer sought an easier target like a shopping mall or movie theater. Should we then add armed security to shopping malls and movie theaters? Tanks? Missile-defense systems? I think most of us would prefer to accept some risk and not live in a police state.)

Let’s look at the other leading causes of death among children.

  • Car accidents are #1. Are your car seats properly installed? Do your kids buckle up properly? Are you teaching your older kids about defensive driving?
  • Drowning is a big one. Is your pool covered? Do your kids know how to swim, or at least float?
  • Fire and accidental suffocation are leading causes of death among young children. There are commonsense safety principles that can be taught there.
  • Among older children, suicide is a leading cause of injury-related death (it’s still #2 after car accidents when you add suicide-by-suffocation and suicide-by-firearm). Here is where we get into the mental health conversation. Of all the kids who commit suicide, there are many others who attempt it and countless more who think about it. What are we doing for these kids? Suicide is epidemic in this age group, and gets worse when you look at the stats for young adults ages 15-24.

All of these things are much more likely to happen than a school shooting.

And by the way, here’s another leading cause of death in children that you can prevent: the flu. (It’s #6 among children ages 1-4 and #9 among children ages 5-9.) Are you and your kids getting flu vaccines every year?

Back to the issue of talking to kids about school shootings. With the amount of media coverage given to these incidents, it is probably unavoidable that at some point we will need to have a conversation with one or both of our kids about Newtown or the next school shooting. Our eight-year-old will most likely hear about it from someone else. Our four-year-old will, I hope, be spared; he has enough anxiety about school as it is. But I don’t think we, or any parent, is under any obligation to discuss it.

It’s true that you cannot protect your kids from every threat. But there is no reason to scare the daylights out of them over something that is extremely unlikely to happen to them, and about which, if it did occur, they could do very little. Are we supposed to coach them to hide under their desks or in a closet if a bad man with a gun enters their school? Would that have any impact, besides instilling a sense of extreme paranoia? I don’t think so.

I’ll close out this depressing post with some interesting charts from the CDC. Click the images to expand them, or download the PDFs. More can be found on the CDC’s website here.

10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group (PDF)


10 Leading Causes of Injury-Related Deaths by Age Group (PDF)