With great sorrow we turn yet again to the topic of how we talk to our sons about a senseless tragedy. This time it is the horrific massacre of nine Black parishioners in a historic black church in Charleston by a 21-year-old white young man. Images of the victims smiling with their families in the days prior and of the suspect with his odd haircut and wide-eyed stare have been flooding the television and internet. The 24 hour news cycle has already told and retold so many stories about this massacre, including the constant refrain that the suspect sat in the church for an hour with the parishioners before opening fire on them, and allegedly told the group that he had come there “kill black people”. It is horrifying to hear this as an adult; how do we help our children deal with it?

First, as parents we must help our children cope with the horror of innocent people being killed by a gunman. Unfortunately we have experience with this; in the 2012 post “How Do We Talk to Our Children About Newtown”? we offered advice which is applicable here:

Limit media exposure, especially for the younger ones. Discourage your older children from parking in front of the 24 hour news channel to follow the coverage. If you are a news junkie who cannot stop watching the television coverage and your son is right there with you, engage him in conversation about what you are watching. Talk to him about how news stations give their perception of the news. If your child is watching or reading reports related to the incident, talk with him about what he is reading.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the tragedy and related emotions. Find out what your child is thinking or feeling and help reassure him that you are there for him.

Acknowledge that sometimes people do very bad things. There is never a simple answer as to why. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to keep these people from hurting others. Remind your son that less than a day after this terrible event occurred the police had a suspect in custody.

Next, we have to help our children deal with the fact that the gunman targeted Black people. The youngest ones may want you to tell them why; what is it about Black people that makes people want to kill us? For the youngest set the best answer may well be to remind them that
people who commit hate crimes have no good reasons to do such awful things. Reassure them that you will keep them safe from harm.

Your older children may respond to this situation with anger as well as fear, shock and dismay. They may see this as another indication that Black lives don’t matter. A shocking reminder of an earlier church massacre; the four little girls killed in a Black church in Birmingham Alabama over 50 years ago.

Talk with them about this anger; let them know you understand and even share in it. But assure them that we as a people will not be felled by these senseless terrorist acts; we have a proud history of overcoming such acts of hate. Let them know that Black and white people all over the nation and the world have been coming together to condemn this horrific event; that there are many more good than evil people in the world. Our children need to hear this from us; we must give them hope.

President Obama spoke to us of this hope this afternoon in his remarks about this shooting, saying:

“The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome. That, certainly, was Dr. King’s hope just over 50 years ago, after four little girls were killed in a bombing in a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.

[King] said they lived meaningful lives, and they died nobly. “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with [about] who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.”

We must help our children substitute courage for caution and fear. We must lead by example.

Let us know how you are talking to your children about Charleston.