Empty Nexter: Our kids need us to be courageous in times like these

A grandma’s response to parents about the risks our kids face

By Carrie Perrien Smith

So here I am writing my twelfth Empty Nexter post for the twelfth month of 2012, basking in the joy of the holiday season. I reflected on how many more homes were dressed in Christmas lights this year than last and how much I enjoyed my friends’ Elf on the Shelf Facebook posts. How quickly things change.

While I was pondering the words that I would commit for internet posterity (however long that is), the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary interrupted the joy of the holiday season. The futures of 27 people, mostly young children, were extinguished on that December Friday at the hands of a mentally ill man before he turned the gun on himself.

The Fallout from the Actions of One Person

Facebook and Twitter provides a real-time snapshot of what is happening in popular culture. That day, posts were filled with sadness and fear for the safety of their own children. Parents were again reminded that senseless tragedies can happen any place at any time. For a moment, they even imagined what it would have been like if it had happened to their family. They hugged their children a little tighter that afternoon when they returned from school. Even though they were hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the crime scene in Newtown, Connecticut, some parents even checked their children out of school early that day.

The following Monday, many of my friends posted about the presence of police officers and security guards as they dropped their children off reluctantly at school. It was a sad reminder that we need that presence to feel safe when an intentional act of one goofball steals our peace.

No Easy Answers

We never know why these things happen for sure. This shooting, like so many other similar instances, was planned and executed by an adult struggling with some form of mental illness. His mother was a victim long before her untimely death. She was a victim of a mental health system that doesn’t address the needs for the mentally ill after they age into adulthood.

She probably stood on the other end of a phone call more than once talking to a crisis counselor who asked, “Is he suicidal or homicidal?” And she probably didn’t know what to answer. She only knows that if she doesn’t answer yes to one of those conditions, she can’t get him into a mental healthcare facility quickly. The only other option is calling the police. She already knows the law enforcement system cannot offer help; their solutions to acute situations just offer complications, expenses, and unproductive options. When you are in a situation so serious and escalated, you don’t know what to say. All you want to do is bring that mentally ill person you love some relief and make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.

The More Likely Dangers Our Children Face

Let’s remember that a school shooting is an extremely rare occurrence. It is a horrific situation, but we shouldn’t allow the acts of one person out of billions steal our peace. When we do, it becomes the monster under the bed. Fear cripples us and steals our potential. We need rush to aid those involved in such crises. They need our empathy but more importantly, they need us to be courageous.

As parents and grandparents, we need to be more worried about what happens every day in every school district in our country. Children are being involved in conversations with other students about sex and sneaking off to the bushes after school to experiment. They are walking past and into homes where someone lives who can harm them. They are playing with guns. They are being offered alcohol and drugs. They are being bullied and bullying others. They aren’t paying attention and they walk into the path of moving cars. They are getting into cars with inexperienced drivers for a ride that will injure or kill them. These are the dangers our children face on a daily basis. And all of this happens at a much younger age than any of us ever imagine. That, my friends, is what we should worry about.

I’m not suggesting we should fear those dangers. I’m saying that we must be courageous. We need to take action to protect our kids from becoming victims of the more likely dangers in our society.

Your Words Matter

The most courageous thing we can do is to open the conversation with the children in our lives. No matter what the topic, there is a way to address it in an age-appropriate way. Tell your kids you love them — especially when they are trying to prove they don’t deserve it. Talk to them about playing fair and being honest. Give them examples of what that means using typical everyday experiences.

Talk to your kids early about the power of kindness and forgiveness, and model it for them. Engage them in dialogue about what it is like to be different and how we all benefit by learning from those who aren’t just like us. And by all means, don’t gauge the time to approach these topics by how old you were when you encountered those same situations. The internet and television are introducing these topics to our children so much earlier.

Talk to them about what is and is not appropriate behavior and conversation to be involved in. In age-appropriate ways, start the conversation about drugs and alcohol and other cultural evils that they may encounter as they walk the halls of their school or ride the bus home. These are topics that require courage. The sooner you initiate these conversations, the more likely it is that the child in your life will reach out to you as an information resource. If you don’t have that conversation, they will have it with one of their “expert” classmates.

The courage to talk to kids about tough issues is important. And you can bet your efforts will be multiplied as they talk with their friends about the conversation you had with them. You might not just be saving your own child’s life. You might be equipping them with the courage to save their friend’s life.

Your words matter. Your courage matters. Their future depends on it.

Smith-51 Twitter SquareCarrie Perrien Smith is mama to Darcie and a pack of black dogs (Snappy, Jazmin, and Midgieboy — in pack order), grandma to Robert, wife to world-traveler and Walmart-blue-bleeding Tom, daughter to Wayne and Phyllis, speaker bureau and publishing company owner, Business: Engaged! small business radio show host, community activist, singer in a party band, and home improvement junkie. Follow her on Twitter @soarwitheagles or contact her at carrie@soarhigher.com.