The Importance of Teaching Children Kindness at a Very Young Age

After Newtown, a mother contemplates what she can do to promote peace rather than violence.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

I volunteered in my daughter Penny's first grade classroom on Monday. The simple act of pushing the buzzer and entering the brightly lit hallway brought tears to my eyes. This is what a school should be, I thought, a safe, happy, colorful place, where it doesn't cross kids' minds to be afraid. We live 20 miles away from Newtown, and Penny's class consists of 23 six-and seven-year olds. That aching sadness that began in the main hallway persisted in the midst of the rambunctious cheer of her classroom. The students worked to create a wreath out of puzzle pieces in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. And as I supervised gluing and coloring, I hated the thought of the kids who weren't able to bring home wreaths to their parents this year.

I had wondered over the weekend if I should talk to Penny about the shooting at Sandy Hook. I didn't want her to hear the news from her classmates, especially if it might include brutal and frightening details. We kept the television off, which is not unusual for our family, and I turned off the radio whenever the reports headed toward details of the murders. I knew my younger children—ages two and four—probably wouldn't hear about it from friends, but I still thought I should prepare Penny, even if just a little bit. I finally told her, "Something sad happened to some children at a school nearby."

Her face got serious as she asked, "Who?"

I said, "No one you know."

That was enough for her. Her world consists of people she knows, and if they are safe and happy, then so is she. I told her that if she heard more at school she should talk to a grownup. But when I asked her teachers, they said Friday's events hadn't come up in class that day. It was noon by then, and they were confident that they would have heard about it already if it was going to become a topic of conversation. "These parents did a good job protecting their children," Penny's teacher said.

It came as a relief that I had no need to talk with my daughter any further about children her age being shot in their classrooms, but I still wondered how I might respond to this tragedy. I thought through various options: signing petitions about gun control, advocating for greater access to mental health support, enforcing safety measures on school campuses, boycotting violent movies and video games. I support all of these efforts, but they don't involve my children in any direct way. Furthermore, all of these are reactive measures, trying to protect against something awful rather than trying to promote something good.

And so I wondered, what good could we possibly promote in the wake of Newtown?

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