‘What do we say?’ Texas parents struggle with kids’ questions over Uvalde shooting

The entrance to a K-12 public school in Harrold, in North Texas. Harrold ISD began to arm teachers for safety in 2007. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera, Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

Prepared with a smartphone and training in early childhood psychology, Austin mom Michelle Lambreton typically feels prepared for her son Franco’s intense curiosity.

But as she dropped the 7-year-old off at first grade on Wednesday, knowing he might learn about the gunman who killed 19 kids in a school a lot like his, she feared the one question she wouldn’t be able to answer.

“Why?” It’s Franco’s favorite daily query. Why do people litter in the parking lot? Why do girls seem nicer than boys?

This particular “why,” however, is loaded with the unknowable and the horrific. It’s a question that has Franco’s mother — and parents across the state — grasping for the right answers.

“They’re all going to ask why,” said Lambreton, a former hotline counselor. “And there’s nothing we can say that makes sense. Just because he wanted to murder people today? We can’t say that. I mean, what do we say?”

On Tuesday, a gunman opened fire on a classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 85 miles west of San Antonio, killing students and faculty in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history — and second deadliest in the country.

[Texas has had eight mass shootings in the past 13 years, while lawmakers have steadily loosened restrictions on carrying firearms]

In the immediate hours after the shooting, some parents, like Pflugerville mom Heather Raley, at first shielded their children from the news — unsure about whether to broach the subject at all or just wait until the questions start coming.

“It was definitely eye-opening when there were all the police cars this morning [at school drop-off],” said Raley, whose son, Jacob, is in first grade. “He just said, ‘Wow, why are there so many police?’ So we know he’ll have more questions.”

Experts say that parents are in the best position to know what their children can handle in terms of discussing the tragedy, but that there are some guidelines they can use to make their conversations meaningful and reassuring.

“It’s very stressful for parents, and it’s so important, and we feel like we don’t ever want to say the wrong thing,” said Dr. Karin Price, chief of psychology at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “But just being open to having conversations and letting your kids know that any of the feelings and questions they have are OK, that’s really the best way to do it.”

Children who are not old enough for elementary school and unlikely to hear about the shooting from a source outside the home don’t need to know at all if it wouldn’t significantly impact their lives, Price said.

“Children of that age just aren’t developmentally capable of processing this kind of complex and tragic information,” Price said. “So if it’s not a direct impact, with the little kids, we don’t talk about it.”

A school-age child is more likely to hear about it at school or from peers, Price said, and so parents of school-age kids should consider bringing it up as an invitation to talk about any fears or questions with someone they can trust.

“It really becomes part of our responsibility as parents to start the conversation, even if our children don’t start the conversation,” Price said. “You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know the exact words to say. You just have to open the lines of communication and know your child and know the limits in terms of what they can handle and what they can hear.”

Parents can take the lead from the child about how much they want to discuss it — and be willing to answer as many questions as they have about it, she said.

One way to start the conversation is to find out what the child already knows, Price said.

“Just by saying, ‘Hey, something really bad happened [somewhere else]. Did you hear anything about that today?’” she said.

Then keep the information brief and easy to understand, she said, and don’t shut down the conversation before the child is ready.

How to frame the facts about what happened, Price said, comes down to family values and what sorts of beliefs parents want to pass along to kids.

Raley’s conversation with 7-year-old Jacob will include acknowledgment that the world is not as simple as black and white, she said.

“I’m not going to say a bad guy just came in and did bad things, that’s too simple,” Raley said. “The next generation that’s coming up needs to know more about mental instability. And so we do talk to him, like, ‘No, this person is mentally unwell. In their head, they thought this was OK, but it’s not OK. And it hurt a lot of people.’”

She’s not really sure, though, how prepared Jacob is for the notion of children dying — although he is familiar with the concept of death, having lost a family member to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“He definitely understands the trauma that it creates, but I’m not sure exactly the emotions that are going through his head. It’s hard for kids his age to process it,” Raley said. “Children’s death is a little different, a little darker, I feel like. It’s hard to give him the image that little kids his age could die or get killed.”

Lambreton went with a direct approach, telling Franco that “a bad guy walked into a classroom and started shooting people.”

“Did they die?” he asked. “Did the teacher get in trouble?” The teacher died, too, Lambreton explained.

“I try to stick to facts and minimize the emotion behind it,” she said. “Once you put your emotions into your questions and your talking, they attach those emotions to it, too.”

Price, who has two children, said kids of different ages tend to ask different types of questions in reaction to tragic events.

Elementary school kids, she said, will usually want to know first if they are safe and if their school is safe. That’s the first question her fifth grader asked her when he found out, she said.

“The answer is ‘yes,’” Price said. “Even when we have doubts as parents, the answer is, ‘Yes, you are surrounded by parents and teachers and police officers and the community whose job it is to keep you safe.’”

She added that when talking to kids, parents should avoid expressing the feeling that they can’t protect them.

“Babies don’t need to hear that,” Price said.

Price’s eighth grader, on the other hand, immediately wanted to know why someone would shoot up a school full of little kids.

In that case, Price said, it’s OK to acknowledge that the answer might not be easy to come by, and that “it’s really hard for us to figure out why because it seems so terrible.”

“That’s a harder conversation for parents,” Price said.

Experts caution against letting children see graphic or emotional news coverage of the shooting, and say parents should try to limit exposure to social media for older kids.

Some kids, like Price’s youngest, may not want to discuss it at all.

“He said he didn’t want to talk about it,” Price said. “He wanted to know where the school was, and once he knew it was far away, he felt much better and that meant he was safe, and he was able to move on.”

Lambreton suggests that parents not try to drag the conversation out of a reticent child, but rather “let them know that when they’re ready to talk, you’ll be there.”

When she does ask questions, she said, she leaves them open-ended so Franco doesn’t think he’s supposed to answer in a certain way. She also tries to answer his questions calmly and gives him her full attention when they’re talking.

“Drop what you're doing and focus on what you’re talking about,” Lambreton said. “When you’re distracted, you’re not really listening.”

When Franco got home from first grade on Wednesday afternoon, the subject didn’t immediately come up, Lambreton said.

After dealing with the usual backpack clutter and excitement over the last day of school, Lambreton opened the discussion.

“Do you feel safe at school?” she asked her son.

“No,” he answered. The kids do whatever they want even if it means hurting others, and “nobody cares,” he said.

Lambreton pressed on.

Do they do lockdown drills at school? Does he know what they’re for? Did he hear about what happened in Uvalde?

After learning the facts, Franco didn’t ask the dreaded “why” question that his mom was worried about.

Instead, they talked about what he could do to keep himself safe in the event of a shooter, and they watched some videos about how to recognize the sound of gunfire and where to hide in a classroom if a shooter were to come to his school.

With one parent formerly in the military and the other an entrepreneur, Franco has been taking karate for two years as a way for him to learn self-empowerment and how to have control over his own life and safety, Lambreton said.

Wednesday’s conversation about the shooting, she said, reflected the values her family holds so strongly.

“I just wanted to give him the idea that you can do something to survive this,” Lambreton said. “I didn’t want him to think that it’s just something that’s going to happen to him and that he’s going to have to hide in the corner until it does or it doesn’t.”

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