A conversation with my 8 year old about Sandy Hook

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

Arina on the rocks

On Friday, my 8 year old daughter and 3 year old son had taken advantage of the half day of school and were at their grandparents’ house, already enjoying the long weekend.

Last night, my husband and I made the two hour trek to pick up Arina, so that she could attend my cousin’s birthday party with us. On the way to the party, Scott and I told her about Sandy Hook. We knew she’d likely hear adults talking at the party, or she’d hear about the tragedy at school on Monday, and we wanted her to hear the upsetting news from us first. The conversation went as follows:

Me: Sorry we’re late, Arina. Mommy’s been trying to change the world again. [a family joke, referring to my activism]

Arina: That’s okay, Mom. How are you changing the world this time?

Me: Something bad happened on Friday, something really upsetting, in Connecticut.

Arina: What happened?

Me: A sick man got a gun, and went into a first grade classroom, and he killed the teacher and the kids.

Arina: What?! He shot them?

Me: Yes. I want you to know, though, that Mommy and Daddy, and other adults, are going to try and make things better, okay? Because this shouldn’t have happened, and we want to work together to do everything we can to keep it from happening again.

Arina: Okay. Good.

Me: This is hard, though. We’re telling you about it, because we want to be honest with you. Some parents may not have told their kids yet, because it’s so hard to talk about it, and some people are so sad that they’re having trouble thinking about it or talking about it at all. So, if you want to talk about it, come talk to us or Nana or Pop, or we’ll call Aunt Nat or Aunt Tracy if you want to talk to someone cooler than us, okay?

Arina: Okay. Mom? How old were the kids?

Me: 6 and 7. First grade. Your age when you were in Ms. Carrington’s class.

Arina: What?!

Me: I know — it’s so horrible and so sad, but we promise we’ll try to make things better. Do you have any ideas?

Arina, after thinking a moment: Well, sick people shouldn’t have guns. Or drunk people.

Me: Yeah — that’s good. Also, I think it would be good to make it harder, if not illegal, for people to have certain kinds of really powerful guns, that do so much damage in a short amount of time.

Arina: What happened to the guy who did it?

Me: He shot and killed himself too.

Arina: What?! But, if he was going to do that to himself anyway, why didn’t he just do that first? Then no one else would have been hurt.

Me: I don’t know, Sweetheart, but he was sick. He probably didn’t think the way other people do.

Arina: Why didn’t he go to the doctor?

Me: I don’t know, but maybe that’s something else we could do, make it easier for sick people to get help before they do something bad.

Arina: I’m going to start paying more attention at school — looking around, you know, to see if people are around who shouldn’t be around. That would give us more time to get away.

Scott: That’s not your job, Arina. Your job is to go to school and have fun. Let us, Mommy and Daddy, take care of that. And we’re on it. Okay?

Arina: Okay. But who takes care of you guys?

I told Arina not to worry, that her Dad and I would take care of each other. And, despite the horror and shock of it all, she seemed relaxed after the conversation, because she believes us, her parents, when we tell her that we’re going to do everything we can to make the world safer for her, a place where she doesn’t have to be afraid to go to school. She doesn’t just have hope — that’s not a strong enough word — she has absolute certainty that we will be able to do this. Because we’re parents, and protecting our children is what we do.

I think this is why I’ve found some of the conversation in which I’ve participated through social media so frustrating, some of the sentiments expressed so unconscionable.

I know I should be thankful for the responses, however disagreeable, because they indicate that a conversation is at least happening. But, what am I to think and do when this is the conversation:

Response #1: we shouldn’t even be having a conversation because these things will happen, and we can’t stop them.

I call this cowardice. Perhaps we’ll fail, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I have many faults — I’m, at times, fickle and selfish and short-tempered and more — but I think I can say with my favorite writer Emily Brontë that “no coward soul is mine.”

I reject the idea that any number of mass shootings is “normal.” One mass shooting is one too many.

So, I scorn response #1.

Response #2: we shouldn’t be surprised this happened, because we’ve taken God, or prayer, out of schools (i.e. the “Mike Huckabee” response).

I call this blasphemy. To suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that Sandy Hook was punishment from God is to align yourself with Job’s friends, whose similar understanding of God angered Him.

I imagine the families of the victims from the 2006 Amish school shooting, rolling their eyes at Mike Huckabee, along with most of the rest of us.

So, I scorn response #2.

Response #3: we should ban abortion, birth control and gay marriage, all of which have discouraged procreation and lead to a lack of respect for life (i.e. the channeling-Jerry-Falwell response).

I call this . . . honestly, I’m at a loss for words here. I guess I call this a contradiction in the extreme, especially when I remember the following, recent tragedy in Ireland: “Woman Dies After Abortion Request Refused.” And, I call it disrespectful in the extreme when I see the wonderful, loving same-sex couples and their families, whose example and influence make this world better not worse.

This post not only came across my Facebook newsfeed, but also was accompanied by seventeen “likes” (and counting).

So, I scorn response  #3.

Response #4: we should reform our gun control laws.

This seems not only sensible but also necessary. This seems a place where compromises could be made. I said as much on Facebook, and linked articles advocating for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and for closing the gun show loophole.

The discussion that followed was both predictable and shocking by turns:

— Seven people, at least, objected as though I had said we should ban all guns, handguns and hunting rifles included. I had to reiterate, several times, that I had not proposed something so extreme, that I was seeking a compromise position.

— One person brought up 9/11, when 3000 people, he said, were killed by men with box cutters. I reminded him, of course, that 3000 people were killed when men with box cutters used planes as bombs. I also reminded him of the regulatory measures passed afterward. We’re no longer free to walk on an airplane, as before, with shampoo and nail clippers. The regulations now in place are an imposition certainly, but an imposition with which we’re all willing to deal, because we have the hope of being safer because of it.

— And one person asked which assault weapons I’d like to ban, because many kids learn to shoot with semi-automatic rifles.

This last post prompted one of my friends from New York to ask the following: “OMG! Have you befriended some sort of local militia down there? I think one fellow (surely respectable, loves his mother, etc…) asked (in one of your other posts) which guns you’d like to ban because some are what ‘most young kids learn to shoot with’!? TELL me we’ve wandered onto the set of some SNL sketch! TELL me Land Shark is coming up next! Because this can’t be reality. If it is, I really don’t think I own the right shade of olive drab.”

My Dad explained what the “surely respectable, loves his mother” fellow meant: that kids are taught to shoot with assault weapons, because they have “less recoil.” This, of course, begs the question: why are kids too young to handle recoil being taught to shoot, or why are kids being taught to shoot, period?

These are people who aren’t in favor of an assault weapons ban, despite the fact that research suggests it could make a difference, because they’d  rather not have to teach their children to shoot with a hunting rifle instead.

These are people who aren’t in favor of an assault weapons ban, because they enjoy having a variety of gun choice too much to be bothered by the argument that limiting this enjoyment may make our schools and our children safer.

I call this opposition greed, and I call it selfishness: a classic example of wanting more at the expense of others.

Response #5: we should reform our mental healthcare system.

I would be less angry, maybe, about the refusal to compromise over gun regulation, if those opponents would throw their support behind mental healthcare reform.

I asked one of my Facebook commentators, who had offered the trite “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” the following:

“Okay — if you believe that, are you going to help those people, then, get the care they need, when they need it? — before they do harm to themselves and others.”


And, this is the “Christian” response. These are the people who claim  to follow the way of Jesus, which is peaceful and nonviolent. These are the people, who claim to read the Bible as “literally” as possible, who fight tooth and nail against gay marriage (which Jesus never condemned) and universal healthcare (which Jesus actually performed), but who do not feel that when Jesus disarmed Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, He disarmed all followers who came after him. They reject the idea that, to Jesus, peace obtained through violence (or the marketing and widespread distribution of weapons) is only an illusory “peace” and one not worth having.

And, this, is a Christianity I scorn — most of all, because it is one that thwarts my attempt to keep my promise to my elementary-school aged daughter, but also because it is a perversion of the life and example of Jesus.

On his way to work Friday, my husband, Scott, told me he heard the following on NPR: “China school knife attack in Henan injures 22 children.” Injures, not kills. He thought, carelessly, that China was having lots of problems and that he was glad to be in America. And, then an hour or so later, the Sandy Hook news broke, and he had to admit that — if our children had to have been in one of those two elementary schools on Friday morning — he’d opt for Communist China over “Christian” America.