Over the past week, my girls and I have perfected the art of snowflake-making. We’ve notched diamonds and triangles into meticulously folded pieces of paper and unfolded them to reveal lacy creations that will grace the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School’s new building.
A continent away, there’s not much tangible that we could offer in the form of support for the students who watched or heard shooter Adam Lanza gun down their classmates and teachers earlier this month in Conn. We could not drop by to pay our respects and light a candle. We were encouraged to hold back on sending gifts.
As Newtown, Conn., mourns the loss of 20 first-graders, four teachers, an elementary-school principal and a school psychologist, the town has been deluged with good will. Strangers have donated money and food and toys — so many toys (more than 60,000 teddy bears as of Saturday) that the United Way official processing the gifts has asked people to instead contribute stuffed animals to local organizations in memory of those killed.
Then came the call for snowflakes. The National PTA has issued the request for homemade snowflakes to spruce up the new school where Sandy Hook students will head next month. In a memo sent to state affiliates, the National PTA wrote:
When school resumes for Sandy Hook, it will be in a new building. Parent-volunteers are working to ensure that the students are welcomed back by a winter wonderland with the entire school decorated with as many unique snowflakes as possible. We encourage senders to be as creative as possible, remembering that no two snowflakes are alike.
Parents, if you’re looking for a way to help bring some meaning to the massacre, try some art therapy. Break out the construction paper and start snipping, then send the creations by Jan. 12 to the Connecticut PTSA at 60 Connolly Parkway, Building 12, Suite 103, Hamden, CT 06514.
Since the call went out last week, the art projects have been pouring in. “It has really taken off beyond our wildest expectations,” says Betsy Landers, National PTA president. “They are arriving in all different shapes and sizes by the thousands.”
Why snowflakes? On the Sunday after the massacre, the Connecticut Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) sat down with community leaders, the school superintendent and school board members to brainstorm how the nation could best show its support for the trauma Sandy Hook students had endured. “It’s a way to make these children feel cared for,” says Landers, “to create a moment of awe and help them experience something wonderful on their return to school.”
But as much as the lacy creations may lift the spirits of the students of Sandy Hook, the effort can also be cathartic for kids and parents around the country, many of whom may take solace in the cutting and shaping as their way of providing some support to children they don’t know. “It gives parents an opportunity to have a conversation with their kids,” says Landers.
That conversation can be a challenging one, however, and some parents may choose not to have it. It’s up to each individual parent, of course, to decide whether to share with children the reason behind the craft project. Shortly after the tragedy, I wrote a piece about how to talk to your children about the tragedy: discuss in age-appropriate terms and don’t overshare.
I followed their advice with my three kids, ages 5 to 10. The entire conversation took about three minutes. I explained what had happened and assured them that their schools were doing everything they could to keep them safe. I answered a smattering of questions. Yet when I posted the article on Facebook, many friends commented that they had no intention of telling their kids.
I was thinking that if they don’t bring it up, then no need to tell them,” wrote one friend. “We’ll see if it comes up. But so far, so good.” Another echoed that sentiment. “Ugh,” she wrote, “have been trying to have them on a news blackout.”
It’s not that these friends weren’t devastated by the horror of what happened; they were, which is exactly why they’d decided to keep quiet. They wanted to spare their children sorrow and fear.
And yet, leveling with our children just may be the most helpful thing we can do. Not only does it ensure that they get correct information, but it engenders compassion — precisely what alleged gunman Adam Lanza appears to have sorely lacked.
It can be challenging to teach children empathy, but the conversations that I had with my daughters as snowflake scraps drifted to the floor felt like a step in that direction. My kindergartener speculated that sharing snowflakes with sad kids across the country would make them happy. “It will make them think of jumping in deep snow and playing and sledding,” she said. She painstakingly lettered “I hope you stay safe in your new school” on one of her clumsily crafted creations.
My second-grader told me that her teacher — whom I’d told about the PTA’s request — had announced that her class would make a bunch of snowflakes to send to children they didn’t know. Her teacher didn’t tell them why; my daughter assumed — correctly — that it was because not everyone’s parents had told them what had happened. In fact, one of her best friends turned to her that day to whisper: “Who are we sending them to?” My daughter told her — which is exactly why experts recommend tackling this sensitive task yourself.
Ultimately, knowing the truth — as horrible as it may be — helped my older daughter feel safe. “Even though it gets me worried,” she told me, “if I hadn’t known and someone started telling me about it, I might have been more worried. I really like to know things like that so I know what’s happening. I like to know the truth.”
In an age when disgruntled twenty-somethings gun down grade-schoolers, don’t we owe our kids that?