Family Matters

Giffords Shooting: To Kids, It’s As Simple As “Use Your Words”

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I happened to be sitting down and eating breakfast with my two older children a few minutes before 8 a.m., Pacific time, on Monday morning. Scanning the front page of The Seattle Times, I saw that President Obama had called for Americans to observe a moment of silence for the Arizona shooting victims, starting…now. It was, inescapably, a teaching moment.

My son, who is 8, had glanced at the paper before me, so he knew that people had been killed, though he didn’t know why — not that we, as adults, really comprehend it, either. My daughter, who turns 6 this month, munched her oatmeal, oblivious. I hesitated briefly before starting the school week on such a heavy note. But the lessons inherent in the killings were too important to pass up. (More on Politics, Parenting, Pot or Psychosis:  What Caused the Arizona Shootings?)

Tons of pundits and columnists have parsed the whys and wherefores of what happened outside a suburban Tucson Safeway as Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords launched one of her regular “Congress on Your Corner” constituent meetings on a quiet Saturday morning. But for parents of young children, what it comes down to is a lesson we’ve tried to impart starting long before preschool: Use your words.

I’d never heard that expression before I gave birth and started hanging out with mothers of children slightly older than mine. But I quickly figured out its meaning: It’s okay to disagree, but always do so with respect. That means no hitting, no hurting, and, definitely, no shooting.

“Even if you get really mad, you don’t kill a person,” Shira, my 6-year-old, said once I explained to her what had happened. “You could punch a pillow, you could jump up and down, you could bounce off the wall…Even if you feel like you really want to make a wrong choice, you should make the right choice.”

My daughter is brimming with righteous indignation these days as Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches. Last week in school, she learned about how King said it made no sense for black and white schoolchildren to drink from separate water fountains or swim in separate pools. He didn’t fight, she told me. He marched and lectured. In other words, he used his words. (More on Time.comHow Do You Wreck the Mind of a Child? One Word: War)

She told me about Rosa Parks, who was arrested for refusing to cede her seat on a bus to a white passenger. If a law is bad, she volunteered with wide eyes, it’s good to ignore it.

Hearing that a man shot a child simply because she was interested in governing baffled my children. Another kid might have vegged out in front of the television, soaking up Saturday morning cartoons. But Christina Green had recently joined the student council at Mesa Verde Elementary School, which is why she tagged along with a neighbor in the first place.

“While she was being so interested, he shooted her?” asked Shira, struggling to make sense of why a child would be targeted for just being curious.

Christina was interested in the political process, which was fitting for a girl who was born on Sept. 11, 2001. In “Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11,” a 2002 book written by Christine Pisera Naman, who also delivered a child that day, Christina’s picture is accompanied by text that reads: “I hope you help those in need. I hope you see rainbows. I hope you know all of the words to the national anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.” (More on Time.comCan violent video games make kids more aggressive?)

My kids identified with Christina because they too are just learning about student council. Aviv absorbed the disappointment of defeat after a class vote seated another classmate on the council instead of him. Shira is eagerly anticipating her foray into the political limelight at her school, where she told me every child in her class gets a chance to serve on student council.

They were aghast when I explained that Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Giffords — and hence the others, who included a judge, a great-grandma and Giffords’ outreach director, who was engaged to be married — because he disagreed with her opinions. Even my second-grader realized there were other, more productive ways to deal with political discontent. “You could protest,” suggested Aviv. “You could email or write letters and say, I do not like this idea, so could we possibly change it?”

Yeah, then instead of killing those people,” piped up Shira, “he could have made friends with them.”