How to talk to your kids about the First Baptist Sutherland Springs shooting

November 6, 2017

Your kids likely have seen the news of the horrific mass shooting that occurred at a rural Southern Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In the aftermath of the deadliest church shooting in modern American history, conversations surrounding guns, hate, and seemingly random attacks are inevitable. As your kids head to school, other children may comment on the attack and even perpetuate the fear and anxiety that many feel after a tragedy like Sutherland Springs.

How should you talk to your kids about the shooting at First Baptist Sutherland Springs? There are five factors to consider when shaping how you talk with them about a tragedy like this attack.

First, consider the facts. Because children may have limited access to reliable information sources, it’s commonly the case that they are uninformed or misinformed about difficult topics, especially when they unfold as breaking news. Children are also still developing the ability to effectively process complex information in limited time frames. You are not trying to prove yourself to be a police detective with all of the answers about what happened in Sutherland Springs. But you should seek to be a reliable source of insight for your children when tragic events occur.

The facts around the shooting in Sutherland Springs are still emerging as the investigation unfolds. It’s helpful to read articles from reliable sources that can enable you to familiarize yourself with the details surrounding the shooting and the ongoing investigation. Of course, the level of detail you use when talking with your children will depend on their age, the priority of the issue in your home, and your parenting approach. But we can’t assume that children understand the details. So, helping your child to consider the facts establishes an essential foundation for the rest of the conversation.

Second, characterize the field. If the first factor helps your children to understand what is going on, this one equips them to understand who is involved. In this case, that could include explaining the major players, such as the attacker, brave citizens who risked their lives to pursue the culprit, as well as first responders and leaders in the congregation. For children that can understand the more complex aspects of the situation, you can explain the role of the attacker’s motive and ideology when they become clearer as the investigation unfolds. Enabling our kids to understand who is involved helps to personalize the attack so that it doesn’t seem like an abstract tragedy that is disconnected from their experience in everyday life.

In addition to equipping kids to understand who is involved, characterizing the field also includes explaining how the people involved are acting. One of the long-term benefits of candid discussions with your children about difficult issues is that tragic events like Sutherland Springs often provide teachable moments because of the stark expressions of good and evil, courage and cowardice, love and hate. For example, the shooter was discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct, which indicates a pattern of troubling behavior that culminated in this horrific tragedy. By providing insight into the character and behavior of the main actors in the situation, parents can better equip their children to display Christ-like character in their daily lives.

Parents must be willing to directly address the questions of their children. Will it be safe to go to church next Sunday?

Third, confront the fears. When children encounter significant tragedy, such as a church shooting, it often induces anxiety. As a parent, you need to be the one who can anticipate and respond to the doubts and questions that arise in your child’s heart. It’s a natural part of fallen humanity for people to respond to senseless violence with fear and anxiety. That is even more likely to be the case for our children (and, often, parents) when a tragedy happens in a church setting.

Parents must be willing to directly address the doubts and questions of their children. Will it be safe to go to church next Sunday? Will a shooter attack people in our congregation? Why do bad things like this happen to good people? These are a small window into the fears and concerns that may pop up in our children’s young hearts. Parents have the unique opportunity to shepherd our children through their fears. When you respond to them in honest and age-appropriate ways, you can signal how we follow a God we can trust, even in life’s most difficult circumstances.

Fourth, coordinate the flow. One of the most important factors parents must consider when discussing difficult topics with their children is how to coordinate the flow of conversation and information our children receive. What should they learn? When should they hear it? How should they learn it? The key to coordinating the flow of information on a sensitive subject is to be intentional. Many parents find themselves reacting to a conversation that they are thrust into, rather than proactively anticipating the right opportunity to engage their children on the issue.

In the case of Sutherland Springs, coordinating the flow of conversation and information is critical. Surrounded by a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and a heightened apprehension by their peers, your children are going to be confronted by the latest developments in the tragedy. The question is: who is going to shepherd your children through it? Will it be the talking heads on TV, the chattering peers in their class, or will it be you? As parents, we can’t always pick the topics we need to engage our children on, but we can coordinate the flow of how we do it.

Fifth, contend for the faith. When difficult situations arise, it creates amazing opportunities for parents to reflect on the implications of the gospel for even the most horrific tragedies in our culture. Don’t miss the opportunity to help your kids learn how to apply the gospel to all of life. You can help them learn more about how God is at work arounds us when you faithfully equip them to process the difficult effects of living in a fallen world.

There are many insights children can gain through candid conversations about what happened in Sutherland Springs. As you explain the senseless violence and evil perpetuated by the attacker, you can enlighten them on how the Bible shapes our response to evil in a Romans 13 world. As you walk them through why a man is willing to pursue the attacker to deter him from harming others, you can show them how the Bible has much to say about loving others in a John 15:13 way. Perhaps most importantly, as you address hate of the attacker and engage the fears in their young hearts, you can equip your children to pray for peace in a Philippians 4:6-7 way.

Parents don’t get to pick the topics that occupy the news cycle. But you do get to shape the way your children think about them if you are intentional in your efforts. By integrating the five factors discussed above, parents can have gospel-shaped conversations with their children about the Sutherland Springs shooting and any other complex cultural issue.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More