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A struggle with what to tell children about shootings

Parents take different paths as they try to figure out what to say about the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., that have gripped the nation

Megan Tager of Newton picked up her 7-year-old daughter, Emelia, at her elementary school. She did not tell her about the shootings.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Megan Tager of Newton picked up her 7-year-old daughter, Emelia, at her elementary school. She did not tell her about the shootings.

In Newton, Kyle and Megan Tager decided not to tell their first-grader, Emelia, about the school shootings Friday in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and 7 adults dead.

“I did a lot of researching online about what to do, and I asked a bunch of my girlfriends who have children the same age,” Megan said. “My feeling was that since it involved first-graders, and she’s in the first grade, I didn’t want her to be afraid to go to school.”

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In Milton, Meredith and David Hall decided to tell their fifth-grader the broad outlines of the horrific story, without going into the details. Elizabeth, 11, had seen a brief news clip on the shootings, and so her parents focused on the safety aspects: Your school works hard to keep you safe, they told her. This is a man who was very sick. He is no longer alive and cannot do this again.

“I don’t even know what I said,” continued her mother, whose daughter attends Glover Elementary School. “I was just trying to act in a way that makes her feel that we as parents are not panicked, we’re not worried.”

Of course, most parents are indeed worried by the unspeakable crime that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The Tagers and the Halls, like so many parents, spent the weekend trying to decide what, or even if, to tell their children about the horrific mass shooting that has gripped the nation.

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Some preferred not to discuss the events at all with very young children. Others relied on advice from school officials and grief counselors who put out guidelines for how to talk to children.

In Milton, the Glover School principal e-mailed a letter to parents listing the steps the school is taking this week, which included a faculty meeting before school Monday to answer teachers’ questions and give them talking points on how to share “a message of safety” with classes. Tuesday morning, the school plans to hold a parent coffee to answer questions.

‘I’m torn; do I tell her or not? . . . I’ve decided that there’s nothing that happened that she needs to know.’

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Principal Drew Echelson also included a link to tips from Maria Trozzi, director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center, on how to talk to children about what happened. They ­include: Limit your own exposure to media coverage and especially your children’s, and keep explanations for those 3 to 6 years old to two or three sentences. For children 6 to 10, reassure them that you think their schools are safe.

Meredith Hall said her daughter went off to school Monday morning with no problem. “She had enough information to know what happened, but not too much,” Hall said.

Kyle and Megan Tager turned off the television and radio over the weekend to keep their children — ages 7, 9, and 11 — from hearing the details of the shooting. But they finally told the older two, both boys, a bit about it.

That’s because they had given the boys each a Hannukah gift that they later decided to confiscate: Airsoft rifles, which are popular with boys.

“We’re the kind of parents who really don’t tolerate [toy] guns,” said Kyle, chief executive of a textile manufacturing company.

But a relative who is a child psychologist OK’d the Airsofts, and their sixth-grader wrote a contract saying that the guns, which fire plastic pellets, would only be used outside, for target practice.

But after Friday’s shootings, the Tagers decided to take back the guns. Linden, their older son, knew about the carnage, but Aidan, a fourth-grader, did not. After a brief explanation, their father told both of them “that we had made a mistake, and we were going to take the guns back and swap them out for something else.”

“I told them we couldn’t take the risk of someone younger seeing the guns and being really scared,” said Kyle.

Isabel Kraimer turned 7 Friday, the day of the massacre. She is a first-grader at Atherton Hough Elementary School in Quincy.

Her mother, Casey Chamberlain, decided not to mention the shootings to her and kept the television turned off all weekend.

“I’m torn; do I tell her or not?” said Chamberlain, an administrative assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I’ve decided that there’s nothing that happened that she needs to know. There’s no need to terrify them if you can avoid it.”

In Needham, parents pulled up Monday behind an idling police car to drop their children off at Broadmeadow Elementary School.

Many were grim-faced, and assistant principal Robi Richards said the staff was trying to keep a sense of normalcy.

Jay Moreschi walked with his kindergartner into the school, the shootings heavy on his mind. He also has a 3-year-old and has not talked to either of his daughters about the shootings.

If his older girl has questions, he said, he will answer them, but only if she brings it up.

“We just told her to give her kindergarten teacher an extra special hug today,” Moreschi said.

Needham Youth Services director Jon Mattleman received calls Monday from parents who did not know what to say to their children. He suggests keeping conversations brief, to avoid details, and to reassure children that they will be safe at school.

He also reminds parents that children follow their cues, so be careful about phone conversations and television reports on the shootings.

Since their fifth-grader knew that children had died in the shootings, the Halls wanted her to also know something about the heroism involved.

“She knows that many were saved, and many were protected by their teachers,” said Meredith Hall, “and what a wonderful community Newtown was, and is.”

Globe correspondent Evan Allen contributed to this report. Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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