Boston, Newtown, Challenger: How To Talk To Kids About Awful Things

I was in fourth grade at Myrtle Schumann Elementary School in Orono, Minn., when the Challenger exploded. I didn't see the shuttle explode live on TV. We were in our class doing our usual lessons as word of the disaster spread. I remember a little kid named Jason broke the news to me personally.

JASON: Did you hear about the space shuttle?

ME: No.

JASON: It EXPLODED.

ME: Like a bomb?

JASON: Uh-huh. AN EXPLOSION.

ME: Wow.

JASON: Cool!

ME: Yeah. Cool!

Another teacher eventually came into our classroom and brought us over to the library, which had the only functional TV set in the school and which sat perched atop a black caddy so that it could be wheeled around. They showed replays of the explosion over and over again, and there was a fundamental disconnect between how the kids watched the explosion and how the teachers watched it. The teachers, of course, were horrified. There was one of their own on that ship. And when you're a grownup, things like that naturally hit you harder. Once you're 30 years old and you've experienced loved ones dying and you've witnessed the birth of your own children, you can't help but be more affected by tragedy, by death. You understand the stakes. You have a much better appreciation for the hugeness of life. I have three kids now and I feel bad even killing an ant these days. That ant may have had a family. I kill him anyway, but the thought does occur to me. I take no joy in that ant's passing.

So the grownups were already in a state of shock and grief that day. The kids, meanwhile, reacted as if they were watching the Fourth of July. There were definitely some oohs when the TV showed the initial burst of flame. Jason openly said, "That's awesome!" before being shouted down by a girl in our class. I don't think that girl was actually terrified by the footage. I think she was just trying to score points with the teachers. The kids, being kids, had no real frame of reference to process what had happened. It was just a shuttle, packed with people they didn't know, blowing up. So many of us reacted in a remarkably inappropriate fashion. I remember WANTING to see the explosion. I had heard so much about it before getting to the library that I was downright excited when I finally saw the thing burst into flames. That was wrong of me, but that's how fourth graders sometimes think. They're morons.

I kept that thought in the back of my head the day I told my oldest kid about the Newtown massacre. My wife and I had an entire weekend to figure out what to say and what not to say to our kids about the Sandy Hook shootings. We have a 7-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 1-year-old. The 1-year-old was easy because you can tell babies anything you like. You can read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to them if you want. They're not gonna remember a thing. And the 4-year-old was still in pre-school. Pre-schoolers are smart in their own ways, but they're still relatively ignorant. If they're focused on playing with a train, you could tell them that the president is here to kidnap them RIGHT NOW and they'd still ignore you. You don't have to say anything to them about anything.

But once kids are old enough for elementary school, you can't shield them from the news. They're old enough to know what the news means and aware enough to take an interest in it. My wife and I knew we had to talk to our kid before she got to school on Monday because if we didn't, a kid like my old friend Jason would run up to her and tell her how awesome it was that a school got riddled with bullets. I didn't want her reacting to this the way I'd reacted to bad things as a grade schooler. I also worried that she would hear shitloads of bad information. You think the Post has dubious sourcing? It's a paragon of journalistic standards compared with what you hear from Brayden McDipshit in the math lab. I took my kid outside, away from the other two kids, and told her I had to talk to her.

ME: Listen, something bad happened on Friday. Someone went into a school in Connecticut with a gun and shot a lot of kids.

HER: Did they die?

ME: Many of them, yes.

HER: Did the man with the gun die?

ME: Yes.

HER: How did he die?

ME: Uh ...

I had tried my best not to delve too deeply into the messy details, but the girl wasn't having it. She wanted to know EVERYTHING.

ME: He was shot.

HER: Who shot him?

ME: I think he shot himself.

HER: In the head?

ME: I don't know.

HER: He shot himself in the head!

ME: Don't quote me on that. The important thing you need to know is that it was very sad. But your school is very safe, and your mom and I will always make sure you're OK, that no one will ever hurt you. And if you feel afraid or anything like that, you can always come to us with questions.

HER: So did he shoot himself in the head?

ME: No comment.

HER: That wouldn't happen at my school.

ME: No?

HER: No, because I could karate him. HI-YA!

ME: That's true. You're very brave.

She went off to school that Monday and when she came off the school bus, the kids were all talking about the shootings. And one of the kids was like, "He shot himself in the head!" really loud. My kid totally spilled the beans to him, which means it was all my fault.

I'm like any parent in that I fear scarring my child's precious little psyche. I'm worried she'll see or hear about one thing—a true crime, an R-rated movie, etc.—and that will break her brain permanently because she saw it or heard it at too young of an age. I wanted my kid to act very sullen and very morose in the wake of this tragedy. That seemed proper to me. But I didn't want to give her any of the gory details. I wanted her to be upset without being truly upset—to achieve that unique, WASP-y level of pretend compassion.

But kids don't work that way. They can't fake it. If you want them to look upset, they have to be genuinely upset. All you can do is give your kids the basic information, show them how you're processing it as a mature adult, and then see what they do with it. What they do with that information is often wild and creative and remarkably unpredictable. They might express excitement simply because they don't get it, or because it's an easy defense mechanism for them. But it's not necessarily wrong of them to express it. They might spout out insane theories about what happened. ("AND THEN A GIANT MONKEY CAME AND WAS LIKE GUUURGGHHHH!") Kids have active imaginations, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's OK for them to take something terrible and make something fanciful out of it. And they might be genuinely upset by the news, which is also OK. It's not going to scar them. It's not going to irrevocably alter their futures. It's going to serve as one of the many things that helps them understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Genuine emotion is better than fake upset.

When I spoke to my kid about Newtown, I was trying to avoid taking her down into the deep, dark horrible thoughts that go through the adult mind when something like that happens. But that was a foolish thing for me to assume. Kids go there anyway. Kids can be very dark, and sometimes darker than adults. They want to know about death. They want to know about violence. They want to know more about the world and how fucked up it is, and they can tell when you're holding back. That doesn't mean you should show them pictures of limbless bomb victims or anything that graphic, but you can talk them about terrible things like war and terrorism without destroying their psyches. There is no real innocence to lose in this life. There's only more stuff to learn.

When the Boston bombings happened, I exchanged texts with an old friend of mine who lives there. He had two relatives injured (neither injury life-threatening) in the blast. My kid saw me texting, and I told her that there were explosions in Boston.

"EXPLOSIONS?!"

She sounded pretty much the same as I did back when I heard the Challenger blew up. I didn't understand much of what happened that day, but I can watch the footage now and I get it. I get what was lost. I wanna fucking cry. And 30 years from now, when my kid reads about Boston again, she'll wanna cry, too.

Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at drew@deadspin.com. You can also order Drew's new book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.