[Image description: Illustration from ‘The Rabbit Listened’ by Cori Doerrfeld. A small brown rabbit leans gently against an upset child amid a scattering of blocks.]
How to talk about mass shootings & gun violence with young children
How do we explain school lock-down drills to our kids? What does a 5-year-old need to know about avoiding guns? How do I counter the narrative that all cops are safe?
We tackled all these conversations with the Little Earthquakes – with the help of the following books.
First- we need to accept that this is a series of conversations. Some of them are going to be hard, and kids will have big feelings. It’s not our job to protect our kids from their emotions – it’s our job to help them manage them safely.
We have to talk about our country’s obsession with violence and guns
I created the first draft of this post less than two weeks ago. At that time, 7-year old Jazmine Barnes was still alive.
In fact, stared researching books for this post a long, long time ago, and kept putting off this post. For years. I didn’t want to read these books with my kids. I didn’t want these horrifying conversations. Surely, I thought, we will put a stop to this in a couple months. With legislation, with protests, with boycotts.
It’s been 6 years since Sandy Hook. It’s been almost 20 years since Columbine. And now Jazmine Barnes is dead. The shootings have not stopped.
Every single day, 8 children die from gun violence.*
Those thoughts, prayers, calls, and rallies aren’t getting it done. We need to attack this from all angles – untangling the threads that have wound up our country where we love guns more than we love our children.
We need to start talking about gun violence now so our families can be proactive in preventing it. Before another parent loses a child.
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Empowering Kids To Work Through Fear
When your kids first learn about mass shootings and gun violence, they might freak out.
That’s okay. This is something we should be freaking out about. If they do, you’re going to give them something to hold onto – hope that they can change things and protect themselves and each other from violence.
These stories aren’t related specifically to mass shootings, but help kids see that they can take proactive steps to confront something terrifying and actively reject the climate of fear and violence we’ve come to accept as normal.
You might also like: Whining, Tantrums & Outbursts: Stories To Help Kids Chill
Discussing boundaries: Why we don’t glorify violence
We knew that guns were wrong. They were not toys – they were machines made to hurt and kill. Together the whole family took the guns outside, made a bonfire, and destroyed them.
That night, as my brother and I watched our gifts burn, we believed we were destroying all the hate in the world.
– Martin Luther King III, from My Daddy
Our family is close with a child whose mother was killed by an asshole with a gun. It’s my responsibility to make sure they never take this child’s loss lightly or find joy in his pain.
Lately, they’ve picked up gun-play games from school and re-enact them at home. A blanket ban on toy guns and gun play without explanation isn’t going to cut it. This is an opportunity to start a foundational of dialogue for the conversations to come.
I don’t tell them what to do – but I remind them of the consequences of taking this lightly.
Do our kids understand why gun play isn’t welcome in our homes?
In For The Right To Learn, the makers openly discuss the scene in which Malala is shot, but don’t illustrate the violence.
This gives me some room to tailor this violent event to an age-appropriate level. Around 4.5, the Earthquakes were ready for it. We talked about the impact of REAL guns, and how close we came to losing a modern hero thanks to a bullet.
My Daddy is a gentle book with a strong message. The author, Martin Luther King III, doesn’t mention his father’s assassination, but he does show the King family’s decision to burn gifted toy guns in effigy against injustice. It’s the perfect book to start thinking about why and how oppression and violence are related.
This isn’t about guns – it’s about power, entitlement, and toxic aggression
There are many reasons why gun play becomes so compelling for our children. That they need to feel powerful and in control is certainly a large part of it.
– Fred Rogers, From You Are Special
Gun violence and the gun control debate are not about guns – not really.
It’s about power – who has it, and how we maintain that power imbalance in our education, policing, economic, and judicial systems.
It’s about raising individuals (particularly sons) to feel entitled to that power. It’s the rage they feel and how it presents when the things they feel entitled to are not handed to them.
Not all aggression is bad. But American masculinity provides only two outlets to vent frustration, pain, fear, sadness, and rage – or even joy. We create active shooters when we stuff people into a rigid construct of masculinity that allows for physicality and rage – and nothing else.
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Creating a better future
By raising kids who understand their emotions, and how to process them in a healthy way, we can pour positive aggression into good things.
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade shows kids the importance of paying attention to normalized violence, naming it, and speaking up against it.
It’s heavy on metaphor and you might need to read it a bunch of times (or even for months) before they’ll be able to parse it but – OH, it’s so gorgeous, and so worth it. We use this book to teach the Earthquakes that if something is broken in our society, they have a responsibility to make noise- no matter how small or powerless they feel.
The Banana Leaf Ball shows how a shared goal in sports can connect people and heal toxic social environments. (Content warning for family fleeing from gunshots and fire, child half-dead from starvation, separation from parents.)
Find more books like this over in the Collective Action post.
You might also like: Breaking Walls & Building Bridges – Kids Books About Collective Action
Band-Aids For A Broken System
In a perfect world, no child should ever have to read these books.
We do not live in a perfect world.
You can wait until your child hears something on the news about police brutality, or you can get ahead of it before they’re blindsided. Proactive discussions, before big feelings about injustice and confusion amplify the experience – are going to be easier.
Something Happened In Our Town addresses race-motivated police brutality, from the perspective of both a Black and a White family (the perspective of non-Black POC, multiracial & Indigenous folks aren’t included in that narrative, as usual). Each family processes common emotions and reactions and recognize their responsibilities to make change.
Momma, Did You Hear The News? uses nursery-style rhymes and acronyms to teach young children how to placate a police officer. (So the officer does not kill them.)
This book is imperfect. It’s a band-aid; a resource created out of necessity. It’s written for little Black boys. It’s written for parents who have no recourse within a system that targets their children, who just want their kids come home alive tomorrow.
The tone is a little victim-blamey and erases systemic racism. It’s not just ‘the mean ones’ who kill innocents, it’s our system of entitlement, fear, violence, over-policing, and supremacy that puts dangerous weapons in the hands of jumpy cops at the expense of human lives.
But that’s a lot to fit into one kid’s book on top of the horror of it all, so this is a baby step.
My sons are non-Black kids of color who can pass as white, but we had to read this book too.
One of my sons is has soft brown eyes and pronounces ‘really‘ as ‘weawy.’ I have had to look into that adorable little face and explain that he has the privilege of looking white enough to not be perceived as a threat. But when he is in public – particularly around police officers and bigoted camp councilors, he needs to do the things in this book. He has to pass as allistic, because the way we move as neurodivergents is perceived as a threat.
Until we succeed in full police reform, families of color – particularly Black families, are forced to have these conversations. Families with targeted disabilities and non-conforming natural language are also forced to teach their children how to stay alive around jumpy cops.
For older kids, you can also check out Samaria Rice’s (Tamir Rice’s mother) PDF Booklet created in coordination with the ACLU of Ohio – the Tamir Rice Safety Handbook. This is a bandaid, a tragedy. Let that sink in, the things we create in the face of injustice that won’t budge.
Even if these risks do not apply to your children, I expect you’ll have to read it, too.
If you do not raise your children to understand the burdens placed on people with targeted identities, you are complicit in this violence. It’s childist and racist to assume an elementary-aged white child can’t handle conversations our families have had to have for hundreds of years. Pretending that implicit bias doesn’t exist, that racist and ableist policing does not exist, or that the hardship of police and gun reform belongs only to those who are targeted – that’s white and non-disabled supremacy.
By hiding this information from them and pretending everything is fine, you’re raising another generation who erases and ignores us when we tell you we’re in danger, that we’re hurting, that we’re afraid. Raising children who unwittingly perpetuate systemic oppression is not acceptable.
You might also like: Stop Lying To Your Kids About White Supremacy – Helping Kids Through White Fragility
Validating Books For Kids In High-Violence Neighborhoods
We read Ironheart when Q was 5 years old. I wouldn’t have read it with him at 5, if I had known what was in it, but it sparked some good conversations. This story is necessary (with strong content and trigger warnings) for two types of readers:
- Older children who live in comfortable, relatively ‘safe’ neighborhoods to give them a sense of what it’s like to live with a cloud of violence threatening kids just like them every time they leave the house.
- Those who grow up within it, to show that that they are not alone, and to validate their emotions and show it’s okay to have LOTS OF FEELINGS and know it’s not fair.
Before we get into it – you’re also going to have to handle how this feeds into the false stereotype that predominantly Black urban neighborhoods are dangerous and full of gangs and guns. I suggest reading lots and lots of books normalizing city-dwellers and Black families in everyday life before, during, and after. If you don’t already do this – skip this one until your bookshelf is less racist. Maybe start over here.
There is a drive-by shooting scene, in which the protagonist’s best friend and stepfather are murdered during a community picnic. The story ties into how her father died the same way, and how her short life has been shadowed with overwhelming, senseless violence. The rest of the story is basically escapism, to imagine what we could do if only we had a bulletproof suit to save our community. We later used as a jumping off point to understand the intersection of poverty and violence, and that impact that puts on our mental health.
Again – unless your kids are already well versed in this dynamic, it’s best to skip this one. Not a book I’d recommend to everyone, but it worked well for us.
This gave Q insight into the anxiety I lived with in elementary school, in a town where shootings were becoming increasingly common. We also discussed how the privileges that came with my mother’s whiteness gave us resources to move to a neighborhood where gun violence only happened in movies.
You might also like: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
For kids dealing with post-shooting trauma
It makes me physically queasy to even include this, because the thought that any kid needs these books fills me with despair and feelings that I don’t even know what to do with.
This needs a separate, expanded post, but if your child has recently been exposed to a shooting, and you need a book to start talking with your kids after a traumatic event, check out Healing Days, A Terrible Thing Happened, and maybe The Ant Hill Disaster (with extreme reservations – see below).
These stories lean toward a trauma-informed approach. As with all books in this post, pre-read them, of course, since I’m just your random internet friend, not a psychologist.
The Ant Hill Disaster is written for kids who have survived a recent mass shooting or natural disaster (the story is intentionally vague, which is both confusing and unhelpful, but whatever). Cook is notorious for tackling hard topics no other writer is willing to poke at, which earns my respect. BUT – she’s a hamfisted maker, churning out tons of sloppy, shallow books that lack sensitivity and specificity each year. Her books often hit the top of the charts on particular topics not because they solve a problem, but because they’re the only books on that topic. Everyone taking the time to write good books simply can’t keep up.
The illustrators she pairs with often turn her earnest, imperfect attempts into unintentional horror stories. (In Grief Is Like A Snowflake, the illustrator depicts a son mourning his father’s death while behind him, his peers are fed to a wood chipper. WHAT.) So be careful, is what I’m saying.
That said, this book is one of her less horrible ones. It has a limited audience – DO NOT use this book to introduce your kid to the concept of mass shootings and violence. It’s ONLY to be used (with caution) by parents and educators who are helping kids deal with the aftermath of surviving a traumatic event. That said, I’d stick with the other two if my kids were in this situation.
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Understanding the use of militarism in oppression
To understand why the US is so obsessed with guns, I teach the Earthquakes how a history of gun violence is baked into the foundation of our country. This is a deeper discussion most schools don’t teach, so it’s up to us.
Neither of these books addresses how the seed of our second amendment hinges on our use of guns during the Revolutionary War – a war we entered in large part because George Washington wanted to throw out the Proclamation of 1763 – which kept him from taking more land from Indigenous tribes.
We love guns because they made it possible for us to keep colonizing and expanding US-occupied territory. When we’re too lazy for diplomacy and innovation, we use violence to unlock access to land, slave labor, and oil. Authors – go write a picture book about that. Meanwhile, I’ve got these for you:
We stumbled onto The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch when the Earthquakes were 3.5 and 5.5. While I didn’t intend to start talking about war so early, it sparked some good discussions and I’m glad we read it.
Featuring a battle during the civil war with soldiers being shot, this was our introduction to the concept of war. The illustrations are juuuust cartoony enough, and the evidence of violence (men laying down, tiny dots of red) is so small that you could skim past the page with a less observant/younger kid and get through it without tackling hard subjects. I chose to leave that page open and let the kids ask questions about it.
We talked about what it means to be at war, why conflict turns violent when non-violent negotiation breaks down, and the impact on the families and communities who have to live through war.
By the waaayyy…this book is AWESOME in showing how (in the US), a multiracial Black man is considered Black, with the loss of rights and discrimination that comes with it. Even if half (or even most) of a multiracial person’s ancestors are white. AND it showed the complexity of the fact that you can have kids of color and still be a racist tool of white supremacy.
This is a fantastic book to explain how “But I have a Black friend/wife/kids” doesn’t excuse racist actions or make someone less racist.
By not shying away from the atrocities of battle and massacres, the Earthquakes see how modern forms of racism and oppression are directly descended from the use of guns in overtaking and murdering Indigenous people.
A spread in Crazy Horse’s Vision depicts this well – as we see how colonists out-gunned Lakota warriors and how the invaders did not shy away from targeting unarmed elders and children. This drove home the injustice of colonization and violence on a level that sunk in with them.
You might also like: Decolonizing Thanksgiving is an Oxymoron – Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of ‘The First Thanksgiving’
Problematic Books – How To Use Hot Garbage Books For Good
Use these books as cautionary tales and examples of blatant toxicity in the popular narrative.
If you are lucky, the your first time you’ll have to talk about mass shootings is when preparing for an elementary school lock-down drill. There are zero books to help you tackle this directly. Sorry.
So instead, we’ll talk about what not to read – such as books like I’m not scared, I’m prepared.
Can we talk about this title? Kids can be prepared, and they can also be scared. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. As we discussed earlier, teaching our kids to reject their emotions is a contributing factor in toxic aggression.
The book is scary with confusing and cluttered metaphors. It’s a mess. But if you must – use it as a template to start your own conversations about ALICE training, which will comfort kids who need a plan of action to reduce anxiety.
However, we choose to skip this book. Instead, we incorporate the guidelines of ALICE training as a game or strategy and sport. Because – holy crap, reading a book themed ‘Here’s what to do when someone comes to kill you at school‘ is a traumatizing way to give kids anxiety about getting on the bus in the morning.
While you’d expect a book titled Lockdown Drill to help you educate and ally fears, it is in fact, hot garbage. The author doesn’t even attempt to explain what a lock-down drill is or why it’s happening. It’s actively confusing, teaching kids that lock-down drills are just another random thing where adults tell kids to sit down and be quiet. And then oops, someone turns on the vacuum cleaner (?!?), and they are like ‘Well good! That’s why we have drills so we can practice!‘ Huh? It really went off in a weird direction.
Publishing shit like this isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous. Libraries and schools have so little resources to spend on books that HELP kids with this. The author chose to take up valuable shelf space with a book that is basically paper click-bait.
The entire thing makes me furious, it’s an example of how little we value the cognitive ability and autonomy of children.
Casual glorification of violence & normalizing toxic masculinity
Problematic example: What Do You Say, Dear?
Like all books published before 2010, the protagonist is a white boy, rescuing passive damsels in distress. The girl plays a nurse, a shopper, a bride, a princess, queen, lounging duchess, a pirate’s victim. The usual.
Oh yeah, and there’s also some unnecessarily threatening violence – a dragon’s head gets cut off, a man presses a gun against the boys head and says, “Would you like me to shoot a hole in your head?”
Which makes a PERFECT example of how frivolously we treat threats and guns. This book is written for a preschool-aged audience, but given the bigotry and all, it’s not going anywhere near my kids until we can use it as an example of glorifying violence, threats, and toxic masculinity.
Discuss with your kids:
- What does this say about the cultural norms when this book was first written in 1958? Worth noting – this is probably around the time your kids grand-parents were born.
- What does it say about our culture that it was optioned for another printing in 1986, a whole generation later?
- How have things changed over the past 30 years?
- Who were the makers, and who were they writing this series for?
- What does this book tell us about the author’s view of women and girls?
- How would jokes about threatening to shoot someone make you feel if someone you loved had been shot?
Brown savage & white civilization stereotypes
Problematic Example: Playing war
I get the idea behind this book but in execution the makers completely botched it. This is a pervasive theme that keeps popping up – brown immigrants are all from chaotic, war-torn ‘savage’ countries. US/European countries (particularly the white suburbs) are safe bastions of peaceful civilization. This is a tentacle of white saviorism, btw.
The white characters say a LOT of really violent stuff (beyond what’s necessary) that the author never addresses, such as “Pick up sticks for guns, and pine cones to use for grenades and bombs.” and “I’m going to blow their heads off!”
The implication is that the kid is being too casual in his play-violence. Buuut…with young kids, we need the story to spell this out. The publisher’s recommended age on this book is for grades 2-5. However the author is assuming a cognition level closer to kids in the 12+ range and/or that they will have an adult reading alongside them to discuss it, which seems unlikely at that age. That’s worrisome, but the kicker is that it’s also written (poorly) and illustrated as a picture book, which means it’s placed in the picture book section of libraries for kids under 8.
Anyway. Eventually the white kid in cammo realizes his brown immigrant friend had his house blown up and his family was killed in a war.
How convenient. Way to make a token brown character a learning opportunity for the white protagonist. UGH. Like all of these types of books, the onus of providing free (and emotionally traumatic) education lies solely on the character of color. This is normal, and this is common. The entire thing feels manufactured and icky, and it speaks to the author’s white privilege. This is some performative ally nonsense.
Discuss with your kids:
- Who wrote this book – and what experience does the author have as an American immigrant of color? (Hint: None.)
- Who is this book written for? How would it feel if someone like you was tokenized as a pathetic victim in a story like this?
- The author chooses to go into detail glorifying blowing people’s heads off and never directly addresses why it’s problematic. How would it feel to read this if you or someone you loved had been a victim of violence?
- The product description for this book claims to help kids learn about “Middle East, Conflict Resolution, Immigration.” If you were researching these topics and found this book – what kind of skewed idea might you develop about immigrants from Arabic countries?
- Why is the character of color used as a learning opportunity? Have you ever seen a book where a white character exists solely to help a character of color grow and learn?
Sanitizing gun violence as harmless play
This is where I get even more nit-picky, but bear with me. There are plenty more like this, but let’s just pick two books where guns are casually brandished without caution or care about victims. Examples: Commander Toad In Space (laser guns), and Peanut Butter & Aliens (jelly guns).
These stories sanitize guns to be (maybe) non-lethal. Which is a win-win for the authors. They get to shut up snowflakes like me, while also benefiting from a child’s fascination with physical violence and power. This happens when authors are too lazy to come up with non-violent (and more interesting or intelligent) forms of defense and control.
This is some childism bullshit. Kids are not stupid. No matter what they shoot, the guns are tools for intimidation and harm.
Kids are acutely aware of how small and weak they are in a society designed for adults. Of course they’re enchanted with the idea of controlling and defending themselves against someone larger and faster than them from a safe distance. Makers take advantage of this enchantment to sell books. And it’s gross.
The reason I’m being picky about this is – if guns don’t kill people, and it’s just people killing people – then why are we raising our people to see violence and physical threats as the first resort for conflict resolution and getting what they want?
Whether the guns are shooting bullets or jelly, the intent of the shooter is always the same – to threaten, kill, maim, and ultimately, to physically control another.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Stay Safe
If you need more help with this, we’ve got an article on How To Talk About Hard Topics With Kids – Building Courage & Resilience over on the Patreon feed.
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