Having “The Talk” With My Kids: What I Said to My Sons About Gun Violence

Guns are to little boys what sex is to teens. If I wasn’t teaching my children about it, you could bet some other kid on the school bus was.
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“Guns had become the school-safety Voldemort of my small New England town. In our silence, we adults were making it plain as day that we were scared.”

Photo by CSA Images/Color Printstock Collection/Getty Images.

My second-grader, Reid, came home after a recent school lockdown drill chewing on his sleeve and reporting a tragedy: “Hey, Mom, a moose came into a school in Florida and rammed into the doors. One kid got a broken leg, so now we have to practice hiding in our classroom in case a moose comes to our school.”

We live in Maine, where moose fill our northern woods as well as the pages of many of my children’s picture books. Our kids attend a socioeconomically diverse public school with families who likely represent all colors of the American gun-politics spectrum. In short, I didn’t envy Reid’s teacher having to explain the lockdown drill to these eight-year olds, but the moose story left me uneasy.

“There aren’t moose in Florida, Reid,” my fourth-grader, Liam, said, rolling his eyes. During the same drill, Liam had cowered with his classmates and art teacher under a paint-stained table, lights out, door locked, shades drawn. “We had to be really quiet,” he said, his older-brother confidence fading from his face. “If someone bad comes into the school—I guess maybe with a gun?—then we have to be silent so they’ll think no one’s there, that school’s not happening that day. Then maybe they’ll leave?”

My kids’ confusion about the lockdown drill reminded me of a school facilities forum I had attended shortly after the Parkland massacre. Architects showed parents and teachers pictures of modern high-school buildings as prototypes for our small public-school district. Someone in the audience raised his hand. “I love all of the natural light in that slide, but I’m not sure we want big windows, given all of the recent…” the man waved his hands in the air, “…you know, safety concerns.”

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Aside from a few teens, this was an adult audience, so we really didn’t need to use moose metaphors, but the man’s inability to say “shooting” or “gun” fit with the euphemisms I had heard adults in our town use since Parkland. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when school administrators asked high school student leaders not to “get political” or mention the word “gun” during their planned March 14 walkout. These teens had recently published a letter to the editor in the local paper advocating for gun control, but the school was asking them simply to memorialize the Parkland victims. You know: martyrs, thoughts, and prayers.

Guns had become the school-safety Voldemort of my small New England town. In our silence, we adults were making it plain as day that we were scared. But in this “That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named” environment, I wondered how we’d ever allay our kids’ fears, let alone insist upon changes to protect them. I believe guns are to little boys what sex is to teens. And if I wasn’t talking to my children about this difficult topic, you could bet some other kid on the school bus was.

So, I did what a lot of my parent peers hadn’t: I burst the moose bubble and told my 8- and 10-year-olds about Parkland. I showed them teenage survivor Emma Gonzalez’ moving speech, pausing the video every few minutes to celebrate her straight-talking courage and her insistence that if adults wouldn’t get real on the topic of guns, then kids would. I also showed them a video about African-American activists plagued by gun violence on the South Side of Chicago.

My mantra throughout was that I wasn’t scared for us. Liam and Reid didn’t need to be scared. In our small university town, they were more likely to be hit by a car on their walk to school than to be shot. But the opposite is true for some kids in the United States.

I was grateful—grateful that our kids were exploring these issues with us.

Fired up, Reid stopped chewing on his sleeve. “Guns are so stupid,” he said.

“We should protest, like those kids,” Liam added.

And so we did. The three of us teamed up with a seventh grader organizing a local March For Our Lives event. Liam and Reid made posters to advertise the march, and we went door-to-door around our one-block downtown, asking waiters, barbers, librarians, and grocers—some likely not sympathetic to gun control—to display our posters. I spammed a local parent email list, encouraging folks to join us on Saturday with their kids.

Only one family replied.

The night before the march we had celebratory-Friday pancakes for dinner and hand-made signs. Liam drew a picture of George Washington proclaiming, “Yuck,” as he stuck his tongue out at an assault rifle. In second-grader scrawl Reid wrote, “We don’t want this” next to a gun and then, inspired by his brother’s giggles, drew a rainbow and a pink unicorn with the words, “Make it be this.”

Soon our whole family was howling with laughter, and I was grateful—grateful that our kids were exploring these issues with us, rather than at the school lunch table where one of Liam’s classmates apparently insisted the Parkland shooting was staged. But I had one lingering fear—that just a few people would show up for the march, and that all of our efforts would amount to teaching the kids that, at least on this issue, we were alone.

Having real conversations about our fears takes practice.

The next day, the church basement that was to be our gathering point was packed. Marchers made signs and filled out petitions; reporters interviewed and filmed kids; and Liam and Reid joined older students to give short prepared speeches. Soon we were marching, a long line of grandparents, toddlers in strollers and red wagons, a preschooler on his bike, teenagers, and parents, all snaking across the bridge at the center of our otherwise quiet town, iconic church steeples in the background.

The handful of elementary-aged kids in the crowd quickly found each other and gathered around the high-school boy with the bullhorn at the head of our line. They echoed him loudly: “Hey, hey, NRA. Take your money, go away.” When we reached our endpoint, Liam and Reid glanced sidelong at a huddle of men draped in yellow Gadsden and American flags, but they joined my husband when he approached these counterprotesters and shook their hands, thanking them for their civility and for coming.

I noticed a few things that day: that I couldn’t have asked for better role models for my kids in the older students who showed up, articulate, informed, and inclusive as they spoke and then led our kids down the road; that all of the elementary-school-age boys present drew detailed depictions of guns on their signs, evidence enough that we certainly weren’t managing to shelter them; and that none of the kids at the march looked scared. Serious, yes. Empowered, definitely. But not scared.

Today Liam and Reid received two notes in the mail from generous neighbors—one from a baby-boomer couple and another from a teenager—thanking them for their activism. In a few days, they will join older students to deliver the group’s petition to a state senator’s office. I’m grateful for this movement. Having real conversations about our fears takes practice. So does civic engagement. We need to treat our children like participants in the fight for gun control, because they—perhaps more than us—are involved. I’m certain they have something to teach us.