In today’s world, we can’t ask ourselves if we will talk to our kids about mass shootings. We must ask ourselves when–and how. In today’s post, I’m tackling an issue that I sincerely wish I didn’t have to–how to talk to your kids about mass shootings.
I’ll never forget learning about the Columbine High School massacre–the first school shooting of its caliber to ever shake our country.
I was a senior in high school myself, and I was waitressing during the dinner hour at a local fish camp. Dinnertime for us in North Carolina coincided with late afternoon in Colorado.
It was still a few years prior to everyone having cell phones on them at all times. Smart phones did not yet exist. So the news of the shooting didn’t hit us immediately, but by that evening we knew that 15 people had died in a terrible and senseless tragedy.
Fast forward to today, and mass shootings–whether it be in schools, at concerts, in churches, or elsewhere–have, sadly, become the norm.
Our society is no longer shocked when a shooting hits the news.
And as much as I would love to bury my head in the sand and pretend that these things never happen, I believe that we must do what we can to educate our children about mass shootings.
Just as we would prepare our children for what to do in the event of a home fire or a tornado, we have to talk to our kids about mass shootings.
After the Texas church shooting back in December, I spoke to a local friend and gun safety expert, Karen Fisher, of Carolina Self Protection, about how you should talk to your kids about mass shootings.
“I don’t even want to think about this,” I told her over the phone. “But I think we have to.”
“Yes, you have to,” she told me. “You have to.”
Our three girls have been taking kids safety training classes with Karen and her husband Dave for several years now. We sign them up every single summer because we believe so firmly in the real-life skills they teach in these classes–from learning about safety measures to take around guns and dogs to how to talk to “tricky people” to learning about safe touch, bullying, fire safety, and more.
I planned on writing about what Karen shared with me here back in December, but I let it go. I prefer to write on encouraging, positive topics. Y’all: I prefer to just smile and pretend everything is OK.
But here’s the deal: Everything is not OK in our world. It never has been.
We live in a sin-stained society, and that means people will use guns irresponsibly and dangerously. And that means it would be irresponsible and dangerous of us not to talk to our kids about such things.
So, this week I dusted off my journalism hat and spoke with Karen again to get her expert advice for you and for me. The following are some ways Karen gave me for how to talk to your kids about mass shootings:
How to Talk to Your Kids About Mass Shootings
1. Talk to your kids about mass shootings now.
Ok–so this is the whole point of this post, right? But I’m serious. We can’t wait to talk to them about a shooting. We have to prepare them for it in advance. That means that we need to talk to them about it as soon as possible.
What is the appropriate age to broach this conversation?
“When I get this question, the first thing I say to parents of small children is: ‘You are the parent, and you know your child best,’” Karen told me. “Each child is special, and each child is different with regards to maturity levels and how they process certain subjects. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s a parent’s job to gauge when their child may be ready for this kind of heavy discussion.”
Karen began this discussion with her own children around age 2 by telling them that there are “people who may want to harm us.” She tried not to use the words “bad guys” because she felt like that would bring an imbalance to their trust in men.
“I didn’t want them to be afraid of men they didn’t know,” she said. “That wasn’t realistic, because if something ever happened to me and I couldn’t help them, there was a good chance they may need to get help from a man.”
2. Tell your kids to look for exits wherever they go.
Karen told me that when we enter buildings, one of the first things we moms need to do is find all available exits and pinpoint the closest exit and point it out to our children.
When Karen recently took her then 8-year-old son to a concert, she and he arrived early and walked around the venue to find exits in case they needed to make a quick getaway. Even thought Karen is from Charlotte,she was still extremely nervous about their surroundings and the venue they were attending.
In her safety awareness classes, Karen teaches that there are 3 levels of awareness:
- Low-Level: You are in a familiar area with familiar people
- Mid-Level: You are in a familiar area with unfamiliar people.
- High-Level: You are in an unfamiliar area with unfamiliar people.
For the concert, Karen and her son were in a High Level area of awareness.
“So like Erin said, we arrived early while it was still daylight, so I could get my bearings,” she said. “We were close to the front of the line to gain entry (I was able to watch people coming in), and we walked around the venue three times pointing out restrooms, safe areas, and exits. I even showed him where the outside smoking area was because there are typically a lot of people in that area and that would also be a place to possibly find help.”
Karen always works to identify safe areas, unsafe areas, and exits when she is out and about with her children–in both familiar and unfamiliar areas. She advises for parents to think outside the box and look beyond the immediate.
“For example, kitchens, restaurants, butcher areas, or stock rooms with loading docks or access to outside (are good places to find exits),” she told me.
Karen asks her kids questions like: “Identify a person you feel would be safe to get help from if I wasn’t able to help you” or “Show me where you would go to get help. Take me there now.”
“By having them physically take me to a safe area, I’m training them,” Karen said.
3. Ask your kids to tell you if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable.
Kids are more intuitive than we give them credit for, and certain personality types are naturally intuitive (I’m one of them).
If someone in a store, their school, at church, etc. makes them feel uncomfortable for any reason, let them know that they need to tell you about it.
Don’t punish them for telling you if they feel like something is off with someone. Yes, it might be unfounded, but it’s better to investigate when your child has a “catch in their spirit” than to just let it go.
And if they happen to see someone with a gun, knife, or other weapon, make sure they know to alert you or another adult immediately.
However, Karen advises to teach children that they are in charge of their own safety–but parents and other grown-ups are there to help.
“For most children it is the first time they are hearing that they have a say in who keeps them safe, and it’s mind-blowing to some kids that they have the right to keep themselves safe, because they’ve always relied on someone else to make safe decisions for them,” she told me.
“Tell your child that if they feel unsafe, or feel uneasy about a situation, or their head is saying, ‘no,’ it is okay and acceptable to get to a safe zone or find a safe adult,”
She suggests talking about where safe zones may be while you go about your daily life.
“Children shouldn’t feel as though they need to ask permission to get safe,” she said. “GET SAFE. No matter what.”
Karen said that children need to know that details don’t matter if they feel they need safety: “Most importantly, give them permission to do whatever it takes to get safe. Once permission enters the scenario, the load becomes a little lighter for them. Let them know that you will always support their decision to get safe, and you are always there for them to discuss their worries about situations.”
4. Teach your kids to run, hide, and fight–in that order.
For anyone in a mass shooting situation, experts teach that you should run, hide, or fight–in that order.
Your first line of defense should be to run–as fast as you can and in a zig zag pattern, which makes you harder to shoot.
This is why exit identification is so important; it’s best to know which direction to run in before you are in a situation where you need to run.
If you can’t run, though, the next best scenario is to hide from a shooter. Playing dead also works.
“At my children’s preschool I was observant within their classroom and heedful in making a determination of what would be good cover and a good hiding place,” Karen told me. “I tried to get a feeling of their teachers’ mind-set. Was she strong-willed (would she fight for my child?) or was she demure (would she be shy to react?)?”
Karen explained to me that “both personalities are accepted and encouraged in my life, but for my resolve, it needed to be considered so I could draw a conclusion on how to train my toddler.”
Once Karen had an idea of how things worked within her children’s school, she walked her kids in and showed them hiding places without being too direct or bringing attention to themselves.
“We nonchalantly meandered around, and I would quietly say things like, ‘Oh look. That would be a safe place,'” she told me.
She once pointed out a bathroom with a 2.5” solid wood door that locked from the inside. “THIS is the safest hiding place in this room if anyone comes into this room and tries to hurt you,” she told her children. “You can stay here until someone safe comes to help you.”
Karen did this twice per year – about a month after school started, and again after Christmas break.
If you can’t run or hide, you can fight back. However, this is a last-resort option, as most kids would never be able to defend themselves against a shooter (although this is a viable option for parents with guns–but only if running and hiding aren’t options).
5. Tell them to wait for police.
If your children are in a mass shooting situation where they have no other option but to hide, make sure they know to keep on hiding until the police come to rescue them.
Tell them to not leave until the police have come–even if it feels like hours of waiting.
Karen suggests having your kids practice breathing quietly.
“A great way to do that is to have them run a fairly good distance, getting their heart rate up, then lie down and work on controlling breathing, keeping eyes shut, and staying still,” she told me. “Teach them to stay put until a safe adult (police or safe adult) comes to get you. And ALWAYS reiterate that a safe adult WILL come.”
6. Enroll your kids in a kids safety class.
If at all possible, enroll your kids in a safety class.
I cannot say enough good things about the classes our children have taken. They usually take them for one week each summer, and our oldest child has even been a mentor for the preschool classes.
In Karen’s opinion, safety training is no longer an “extra-curricular activity”.
“It’s just as important (if not more) as math, as reading, as sports,” she said. “All children should be given the skills to recognize, avoid, resist, and if necessary, escape any danger, violence, or harm no matter where they are.”
7. Teach first-time obedience.
We are still working on this with our kids–specifically when it comes to turning off the TV, etc.
We’ve recently been frank with them in that we need them to learn how to obey us immediately because of trying to avoid dangerous situations.
It could be a fire, a car coming down the street, or a shooting, but we want our children to obey us when we say “run,” or “go!”
Karen confirms that first time obedience is imperative.
“First time obedience starts at home with the mundane activities of life,” she told me. “Our Lord knows it’s hard, so I’m not alone. When things seem to go off course in my family’s life and the children start to test the waters, I do try to give them a dose of the realities of our world. It doesn’t work all the time, but it works some of the time. So I practice. And practice more. Practice makes progress.”
Ultimately, God is in control, and we need to teach our children that He is good and that we can trust Him.
We cannot live in fear of the troubles of this world, but we can do all we can to make sure we are aware of our surroundings and protecting the loved ones God has called us to parent.
Have you ever talked to your kids about mass shootings? What are your suggestions for how to tackle this increasingly necessary topic with your children?
This is a very thoughtful post, and I appreciate that you are doing what you can to keep your family safe, and also your readers safe. That said–respectfully, isn’t the most important thing we could all be doing ADVOCATING for better gun control? You do a walk-thru of your child’s preschool twice a year to find them places to hide in the (not impossible!!) event a crazy person with a gun comes in and starts shooting!! THIS IS NOT NORMAL–THIS IS NOT OK. This IS a fallen world, and that does not mean we shrug and say, Well, do our best–it means, This is a fallen world and God would not want us putting mass killing machines in the hands of any sinful human. Jesus said, He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. This may not be a political blog and you’ll probably feel really uncomfortable with this comment–but it is an unabashedly Christian blog, and I defy you to give me any evidence that Jesus would promote gun ownership for any reason, including self-defense. Jesus didn’t defend himself and neither did any of the early martyrs. GUN CONTROL. NOW.
This is not about gun control. Criminals always get guns. Schools are “gun free” zones. He shouldn’t have had a gun there. Did that stop him? No! Chicago has the most gun laws, but they also have an alarming rate of gun violence. This can’t be fixed with gun laws.
Wrong. I live I’m Australia and this is so beyond my reality, I can’t believe you even think this is normal. It’s not. It’s totally messed up.
Becca, we beg you, come to the US and take the guns from the criminals here. Please!
No moral, law abiding person wants gun violence, but we haven’t figured out how to get guns out of the hands of criminals here.
Some cities ban them, but there are still shootings in those cities. There have been programs to buy guns, but the bad guys didn’t go sell their guns.
We hate this. We also have a huge population and big criminal element. And a 2nd Amendment.
It would be great if everyone beat their swords into plows, but so far, we can’t get them to do it.
Next best thing is to prepare.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I know this gun debate is a very emotionally-charged and important issue in our country today. I don’t deny that or disagree with you that we must do something more to prevent these weapons getting into the hands of killers. I have not done my research on that issue, though, and I prefer to keep issues on this blog geared toward educating families. Regardless, we must teach our children that there are people in this world who want to harm them, and we must prepare them in the event that they encounter one.
Face it, nobody cares. If 20 dead six year olds led to an increase in gun sales, the sad but inescapable fact is that Americans love their guns more than they love their kids. Thoughts and prayers y’all! But it’s too soon and we don’t want to get political.
this is incorrect. 97% of Americans want stronger gun control and laws to restrict access to guns. It’s not Americans who love their guns, it’s the NRA who has positioned elected leaders and promoted propaganda paid for by millions of NRA members to promote the idea that stricter gun laws = taking away guns. I’m a volunteer with MOMS Demand Action for Gun Violence in America and I LOVE the tips Erin provided and how to talk to your child, but some of the comments seem to believe some of the propaganda that causes people to believe that the gun issue in America isn’t solvable. That’s not true. There is currently a universal background check bill sitting in the Senate that Mitch McConnel refuses to bring forward (because he knows it is an issue that is widely supported by Americans). This bill would require background checks on all gun sales online (where 25% of guns are purchased without requiring a background check.) Gun violence and guns in America is definitely a hot topic but it something we can prevent if we elect leaders who prioritize our safety over their perceived importance (and job security – visavi the NRA).
A very timely and thought provoking post. I wonder if Karen would be able to provide information on how to find programs similar to what she provides elsewhere in the US? Agree that this is not about ‘gun control’. Criminals always find ways to get guns (case in point, the recent death of two Westerville OH police officers. The assailant obtained a weapon by having a friend buy him a gun. The ‘friend’ was able to obtain a gun ‘legally’. ) Thank you Erin and Karen for addressing this issue.
I need to add that to the post! Karen runs a local RAD Kids program. RAD is all over the country, though! Here is a link to their national website: http://www.radkids.org. I cannot recommend RAD enough! My kids love it. Once they go through the program once, they can re-take it year after year for free!
We live in Australia where gun laws are very tight and to legally obtain a gun it can take up to a year to go through all the checks and you have to have a legitimate reason, eg hunting or be connected to a target shooting club. My husband is in the minority of people who have a licence, and shootings aren’t that common in Australia, however there has been a rise in knife and vehicle attacks. We often check our exits and are very attentive to who is coming in and out of places, but we haven’t talked to our children about it yet 4 and 19mo. You’ve very practically given me a lot of things that we can discuss with them.
Wow–that is tough to hear about the knife and vehicle attacks! That has been my concern about ever using Uber or Lyft here in the U.S.A. I am so glad the post gave you some food for thought!
The car attacks were: a mentally deranged man had a fight with his family and drove into a crowd (Jan 2017, 5 dead) and a wanna be terrorist drove into a crowd (Dec 2017, 1 dead.) Both in Melbourne’s CBD, an area I know well. Both heart breaking. But I will gladly take my chances with a madman with a car over a madman with a gun. Five dead in a shooting in the US wouldn’t even make the front page, and one dead wouldn’t even male the news, outside of the area where it happened.
Australia has such a low murder rate that pretty much every murder in the country makes the national news. When I first moved here I kept hearing about these murders and kind of felt like, Where have I moved? Then I realised I was hearing about murders that happened on the other side of the country.
Sometimes I think it’d be cool for my kids (who are also US citizens) to do an exchange in the US. But then I read something like this and think, Nuh uh. I don’t want my kids to just get used to having the responsibility to always live their life in this hyper vigilant stage. My kids deserve better and so do yours. I’m sorry American politicians don’t agree.
I live in Australia and my experience is totally different to Lizzy’s. Sorry, no, but the frequency of car attacks (two) is not enough to constitute a crisis, and knife violence isn’t even on the same level – maybe one casualty as opposed to 20, but usually not even that. You just can’t kill a lot of people with a knife. I grew up in the US and remember worrying about school shootings. We had a cop in my high school. When I tell my Australian friends this they think I must’ve grown up in a ghetto. Nope, a small town. I haven’t lived in the US for 20 years now and this article just made me anxious. How can you live like this? It is not normal. I am so, so glad my kids don’t have to think this way.
I found this article very very helpful, and sad. I do hate the thought of my children and myself having to live in a state of hyper-viligence. But I do live in America and I do not have the option of leaving the US, nor do I intend to run for safety when God may have plans for me here. The fact is that this is the reality of where we live right now, for whatever reason. There are so many more reasons than ‘gun control’ that contribute to this violence. I personally feel that a separate blog post would be the best place to address any of those issues.
In the mean time I want my children to be safe and to know how to protect themselves.
I wouldn’t have even thought of some of these. We may not be able to control other people, but we can do our part to educate our children well. Thank you for empowering is in this area, so straightforwardly! What a useful article.
Thank you for sharing this article, I was really interested to read.