I’ve spoken with a number of youngsters about Adam Lanza’s deadly rampage at Sandy Hook elementary school. I’ve listened to their fears, answered their questions, and offered them lots of reassurance.
What I’ve not done is to point out that this horrible event reflects three uncomfortable truths about life that are well known to adults but rarely discussed with kids.
1. Life is unfair. I’ve had an image stuck in my head about the absolute terror felt by those 20 young children and six adult staff as they confronted their imminent death. I can’t even begin to make any sense of this, along with so many other tragedies that occur daily.
When I was in fourth grade, a police officer and priest came to our classroom to talk about the rape and murder of one of the students in our school. One of my classmates had the audacity to ask Father Robert what we were all thinking but were afraid to ask. “Why does God allow such bad things to happen to little kids?” “God is a lot smarter than you, my son. He has a plan for all of us even if we can’t understand it,” responded Father Robert.
This sounded pretty stupid to me as a fourth grader, and remains incomprehensible to me now as an adult. So many things about life are not fair.
2.You are not safe. The killings at Sandy Hook are a statistically rare event. Even so, adults know that total safety is an illusion, with car crashes and accidental poisonings the major causes of death for children. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to do better. When automobile fatalities increased substantially in 1960s and 70s, there was a concerted effort to design cars more safely and enforce laws related to drunken driving. The result was a gradual but substantial decrease in automobile related deaths.
We can improve the safety of our children. In addition to looking at school security, gun laws, and our culture of gratuitous violence, we need to focus on improving access to mental health services for kids and adults. Only about 20% of kids with mental health disorders get treatment for their problems.
3. There are evil people in the world. Perhaps Lanza’s behavior was due to a genetic abnormality, a psychotic disorder, or a bad family life. We have a strong need to understand how an adult can perform such atrocious acts.
We know that not all bad behavior is caused by mental illnesses. There are evil people in the world, although we rightly tell our kids that people are overwhelmingly good.
These are tough times for many parents who are trying to offer reassurances to their children but also know that Sandy Hook reminds us of some very uncomfortable life lessons.