We’ve decided to take a break from the news.
Friday, when the tragic news from Newton, Connecticut broke, I called my husband to discuss how we would handle sharing this news with our fourth grade daughter. Like so many of my friends, who posted on Facebook and Twitter that they wanted to pick up their children right that minute, my first inclination was to drop everything and go to my daughter’s school, hold her tightly, and not let go.
My husband — always a voice of reason during times of tragedy and emergency — suggested that we wait until school was out, and not do anything too disruptive to our daughter’s normal schedule. We considered that it was unlikely that the school would share the news with the students, but that we didn’t want her to hear the news from other children or parents who might be discussing it in the hallway after school let out.
When we arrived at the school, it was a typical Friday afternoon, children running through the hallways, screaming and laughing, digging money out of their pockets for our school’s weekly candy sale, a fundraiser for the school’s 5th grade class. I went inside to find our daughter, and spotted her bouncing down the hall, talking and laughing with a classmate. Oblivious to the horrors being reported on the news, the children were the picture of innocence.
“Mommy! You’re here early..” she said as I hugged her so tightly she wiggled free, embarrassed, “A lot of parents are picking up their kids early today. Weird..”
And it was true. The school seemed unusually busy for a Friday afternoon, likely because other parents wanted to get their hands on their kids and hug them tightly as well.
We walked together to the cafeteria where the aftercare children meet. A group of kids were lined up to carefully pour a cup of hot chocolate, a special holiday treat. Others worked busily on art projects. Others were tossing binders and backpacks on the floor, a week of school behind them. Several of our daughter’s friends ran up for a hug, or to show me something they’d drawn. I paused for a moment and just watched the scene, groups of children on a Friday afternoon, just being kids. I felt immensely grateful, yet painfully aware that nearly 2,000 miles away, another elementary school was the scene of something unimaginable.
As I went to sign our daughter out of aftercare, the aftercare teacher and I exchanged a controlled, yet tearful look.
“You’re early today,” she said, equally surprised to see me before 5:00.
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing the head of one of our daughter’s classmates as he walked by, “It just felt like a good day to pick her up early..”
At home, the weekend began like any other weekend, except it was several hours earlier and the television was intentionally off. This is unusual for us. We’re a news-watching family. Each morning, two televisions – one in the living room and one in the master bedroom – report on a combination of local and national news. My husband, a political junkie, irons his shirt in the living room as he talks back to the commentators on MSNBC. I dress based on my local NBC weather report, and time my morning around the opening music of The Today Show.
But this time, in an effort to protect our daughter from disturbing information, images of violence, or the sensationalism of a tragic event, we opted to explain the situation by talking. As we had hoped, our daughter had not heard the news. As parents, Tim and I did our best to explain the news to a 9-year old, offering her solace only in the fact that what had happened was so far away, perhaps the distance would make it seem less real.
This reminded me of a friend of my parents, who, despite his profession as a photojournalist, made a conscious decision to stop watching the national news many years ago. It was simply too depressing and overwhelming. Feeling helpless, he decided that the only thing the national news could do was make him fearful of things out of his control. So he chose to only pay attention to local news stories, and felt that by doing so, he could choose to impact things in his own community. And when he made this decision, he felt more at peace. Perhaps it’s the ultimate exercise in denial, like those who choose not to vote because they don’t feel their vote counts. Yet, I relate to his decision, and wonder if there’s a way to stay informed, yet be shielded from the sense of overwhelm that comes from so much tragedy and sadness.
Because the constant reminders of Sandy Hook have been so painful, I decided to step back from social media a bit this weekend as well. I tried to do my part in sharing some coping tools with my Facebook friends, posting a wonderful article by Fred Rogers on how to talk to your children about unsettling news events. I also stumbled across a post written by a man in Vancouver that was falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman, wherein the author blamed the media for sensationalizing stories of mass violence, and rewarding those responsible with a celebrity status. In this post, the reader was advised to stop watching the news. And because when Morgan Freeman tells us something, we can’t help but think it’s coming from God, we pay attention.
As parents, we will never be able to adequately explain to a child why things so tragic happen. We can talk about our opinions on how society cares for our mentally ill, we can share out thoughts about guns, or our thoughts about violence. We can tell our daughter to cover her eyes when a violent scene comes up as we’re watching a movie. As parents, we can do our best to protect our children, including our two teenagers who, because of easy access to the media through their smart phones, are more aware of the darkness in society. And while we know that all of our children will lose that sense of wide-eyed innocence soon enough, as parents, we do our best to provide shelter from the news that will forever change them.
So this weekend, we did what we could to help guard our daughter from the painful reality of the tragedy in Newton. And by turning off the news, we blocked ourselves from the pain as well. Friday night, we buried our heads in Technicolor, decorating the Christmas tree, and watching the fantastically innocent “White Christmas.” Saturday, we slept in and stayed home all day, enjoying a day with no schedules and no commitments. Today, we’ll attend a holiday party with friends, and as the adults mingle and the children run around making merry, we’ll look at it all a little differently, knowing that what we have is something truly precious, and something that we cherish, and that the news will be there tomorrow, if we choose to turn it on.