A Sensible, Helpful Response to a Tragedy

Readers — This mom’s Facebook post about preparing her child for an unlikely but not unthinkable problem — being locked outside in the freezing cold — made sense to me:

…Most of us are aware of the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Bemidji, MN where a 6 year old girl died from exposure to the extremes cold. This led my husband and I to wonder, what would our 6 year old little girl do if she, for any reason, ever found herself stuck outside. So we decided to ask, well, we were shocked at what we heard….she had answers, but I can tell you not one of them would have kept her alive for long in the temperatures we have been experiencing this winter. Among her responses were, I would try to break a window, I would yell for you, I would see if the car was unlocked and go in there. We kept asking, what else could you do..hoping to hear the answer we were looking for…I would go to a neighbor’s house and tell them I was locked out…we never got it. We had a talk about how dangerous this cold weather is and explained that she should go to a neighbor’s house, to which she relied “but you don’t like me to cross the street without telling you, especially if it was dark.” She then said if it was dark out, I would be scared to have to go down the street in the dark alone. We talked about emergencies and that sometimes in an emergency we can’t follow all the rules we are normally expected to and we just have to be careful and do the best we can…

Read the rest here. As you know, Free-Range Kids believes that since we can’t “child proof” the world, we must try to world-proof our children. Preparing them for the times we’re not with them is part of that, as is encouraging flexibility in the face of the unknown. This is not to blame anyone, just to spread the word. – L.

Prepare kids for the world.

Free-Range believes in trying to prepare kids to fend for themselves if and when we’re not around.

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36 Responses to A Sensible, Helpful Response to a Tragedy

  1. SOA March 2, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Wow that is so sad. I would think the first response would be if you can’t get inside the house to go to a neighbors house. Of course at night it is possible neighbors would not be awake to answer the door either. But you can at least try. I need to have a talk with my kids about feeling okay to go to a neighbors for help if you need it. I would think they would know to do that but I might need to spell it out for them.

    If you don’t have neighbors like out in the country you would need to come up with another plan for them.

  2. Les Groby March 2, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    This tragedy happens often to the elderly, too, especially in rural areas. Prevention is simple: do not use spring-loaded locks on exterior doors! Use only dead bolt locks that require the use of a key to lock them from the outside.

  3. Wendy W March 2, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Here’s a link to a complete account of the story. This was the most detailed article I found online.


  4. J.T. Wenting March 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    tells her child for years to never trust strangers, not go into other peoples’ cars and houses, then wonders why that child doesn’t mention going to the neighbours in an emergency…

  5. SOA March 2, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Also good idea to hide keys somewhere outside and show kids where they are. I wonder why the mother did not hear her knocking? I guess maybe she was a heavy sleeper.

    Glad we got a door bell. I know that would wake me up if the knocking didn’t.

  6. Melissa March 2, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    From the link that Wendy W provided, it sounds like this girl was locked outside of her huge apartment complex, which had an outside security door with a buzzer system. So it wouldn’t be the same as a house: her parents wouldn’t have possibly heard her knocking or shouting if their apartment was further inside the building. She may have been too short to reach the buzzers to buzz any neighbor (In my current apartment, they are eye level for an adult). And you can’t leave a hidden key anywhere. In weather that cold, no one would have their windows open, and from personal experience, the apartments I’ve lived in have been more soundproofed than the typical home such that I can’t hear people shouting and talking outside unless my window were open.

    It’s truly sad that in an apartment complex, where you have that many neighbors, that no one was able to help her in time.

  7. SOA March 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    I guess all you can do is evaluate your circumstances and if you realize the child could not get back in if they decide to wander out at night or sleepwalk, then you need to take preventative measures like installing locks out of reach or door alarms or key locks and keep the key hidden by your bed.

    Some people think that kind of measures are not free range, but I don’t really feel that way. I feel like you can take steps like that to give everyone peace of mind and its okay. Kids should never be wandering outside at night anyway even free range kids so it is not hindering their independence at all to take preventative measures.

  8. SKL March 2, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    So sad.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve told my kids to go tell a neighbor if they are ever locked out. However, I should revisit this, as it’s been a long time since we’ve had the conversation. They don’t ride the school bus, so it is very unlikely they would find themselves home alone, but it doesn’t hurt to talk about it.

    We have a doorbell and my kids would be ringing it like there’s no tomorrow, but if it didn’t work or for some reason nobody was home, then they would need to have Plan B.

  9. Beth March 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    @JT Wenting…I didn’t see anything in this post where the poster told her child for years to never trust strangers, or not go into other peoples’ cars and houses. The only thing mentioned in this vein was about crossing the street without telling a parent.

    Did I miss something in my reading, or did you making an assumption for some reason?

  10. lucy gigli March 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

    We’ve been talking to our kids for years about going to the neighbors. We’ve pointed out which houses have neighbors who work at home and are more likely to be home.
    When they were little and even sometimes now, as we bike around the island, I point out the houses where we know people.. I always figured that if my child or teen were out and about lost or needed something they would recognize the house and run to that one first.

  11. marie March 2, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    From the article Wendy W. linked to:
    The family also has two younger siblings enrolled at Horace May. Hess said students and staff will have the support of school psychologists and social workers to cope with the child’s death. Psychologists and social workers are scheduled to be available throughout today.

    Pulling in the psychologists to “help” kids cope with bad news teaches kids that they need outside help to cope with bad news. Why not rely on their families to get them through it? Instead of assuming that bad news requires psychological assistance, why not assume the families will help them?

    For the family of the little girl, it is much more than “bad news” and they may very well need help to navigate a crushing grief. I hope they find a compassionate counselor who can help them.

    For six-year-old classmates or for classmates of the little girl’s siblings? It should not be a given that they will require counseling. Parents should make that decision and if the parents decide counseling isn’t necessary, parents can answer questions the children ask about the death.

  12. SKL March 2, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    Marie, I’m assuming the school counselors are there to help the teachers / administrators respond intelligently to the situation, including dealing with whatever the kids say. The kids will be talking about this, and a little sensitivity goes a long way. I don’t think this is in any way similar to shrinking the kids’ heads.

  13. MT March 2, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    Marie, when a student of mine passes away suddenly, I needed support to get through it, to stand in front of the class and tell the others that their classmate would not be returning, and to support them while I myself was grieving. Some of my students also needed some extra support. Others did not. The assumption that students should get support from their families assumes that all students have supportive families. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. When people are brought into the school for these situations, nobody is forced to see them. They are usually present in the school for those that wish to use their services, and have nothing to do with people that are unaffected or managing fine on their own. The message being sent is not “You need a psychologist to get through this”, rather it’s “If somebody needs us, we’re here”. What is the problem?

  14. lollipoplover March 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    It seems appropriate to offer counseling for kids to cope with an accidental death, not so much if they’re *troubled* by a classmate who made a poptart gun.

    On our street, my kids would go to 12 out of the 14 houses. Some they’re at every day (and we always seem to have extra kids here all the time) and we’re lucky to have a close neighborhood, I know many who don’t. But I’ve played “worst case scenerio” on long car rides with my kids to get an idea of their thought process and it can be enlightening to what they would do. I brought up fire to my youngest and was horrified when she told me all the things she would try to save in a fire. We then had a very long talk about objects (replaceable) and people (not replaceable) and how homeowner’s insurance works.

  15. Papilio March 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    This does show that there are rules, important rules and matter-of-life-and-death rules, and the latter categories can trump the first one(s).

    @lollipopover: What my mom said about that situation: if you CAN safe 1 thing, grab the family photos. Also not replaceable.

  16. SKL March 2, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    On the topic of what to save in a fire, my mom used to have a specific box in a specific place, centrally located. She told us that if there was ever a fire, grab any younger kids, grab that box (if you can safely), and get the heck out. The box held some important documents.

    I keep telling myself I need to do that. Though nowadays, a lot can be protected by having a copy online or offsite.

  17. SOA March 2, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    I cannot get mad about the school paying for counselors to be on hand to help anyone who thinks they might need someone to talk to about this. I doubt they force anyone to go see them. It is just something that is there for them, should they need it. They will probably talk to the class as a group at first explaining what happened and then from there tell them if they want to talk further, they can come do so.

    I don’t know why that would bother someone. Are you a Scientolgist or something because they hate pyschologists?

  18. MichaelF March 2, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    This was one reason why we put key pad locks on our doors, our 8 year old knows the combination and how to get in. So he’s never locked out, and doesn’t need a key. It also gives me a free hand to get in the house, even with bags I have a finger to push the combination and get in. I don’t think I have used a key on our door in years.

  19. BL March 3, 2014 at 5:22 am #

    I thought back to when I was 6.

    I could picture the block we lived on. There were about 14 houses on our block or just around the corner. Only one house contained what I’d call “strangers” (who didn’t socialize with the rest of the neighborhood but let everyone know they hated children and dogs.) And only one other hosue had neighbors I’d would have been dubious about if I had to knock on the door in an emergency, and they probably would have been OK (they screamed at each other a lot and one of their older boys had an actual “juvie” record for some fairly serious stuff.)

    Oh, and it got below zero fairly often in winter. This was in Michigan.

    Re counselors: does anyone else find the word “cope” belittling and demeaning? It makes my skin crawl to hear that word.

  20. Miriam March 3, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Obviously, if you are rural, going “door to door” will not work, but the point of the post is: teach your children what they need to know that is appropriate to where you live. This is an excellent post.

  21. marie March 3, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    I don’t know why that would bother someone. Are you a Scientolgist or something because they hate pyschologists?

    I don’t hate psychologists. Do you hate Scientologists or something?

    I don’t like the assumption that we need professional help to cope with grief. As a general rule, we don’t. The vast majority of us handle the death of friends, even at an early age. And the vast majority of us can get our children through a tough time if they were to lose a young friend.

    We talk about world-proofing our children and this seems a good example of why raising resilient children is a necessary. Bad things happen in the world and the more kids can handle on their own without needing an expert, the better, whether we are talking about making grilled cheese sandwiches, riding the bus, bandaging a knee, walking to school, or grieving.

    When children are grieving, it makes sense that their own family and friends will be of more comfort to them than a stranger who drops in for a day or two. I would rather explain death to my kids myself instead of letting them hear an explanation from some random counselor who doesn’t know my kids. And if my child were truly traumatized by a death–for example, if they saw a friend get shot–I would choose a counselor for him/her.

  22. Donna March 3, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    marie – There isn’t an assumption that we need a psychologist to handle grief. The schools are making a psychologist available for kids, teachers and staff who WISH to talk to one. Nobody is being forced to talk to anyone.

    As someone said, not every kid has good parents. About a third of the kids in my kid’s school have crap for parents. It is a disadvantaged area with a large number of kids who are in foster care or live with people outside their parents or who have parents who are kids themselves or are crack heads or are just this side of CPS taking the kids out of the home. Many of those kids are absolutely not going to get any support at home for things like this.

    Even kids with great parents may want to talk to someone else for some reason. We often hear things better from people who aren’t our parents than we do from our parents. Elementary school is a little young for this, but who knows.

  23. EricS March 3, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    That mentality should not just apply to EMERGENCIES. That applies to all aspects of life. Parents can never and will never be able to keep an eye on their kids ever second of the day. It’s just impossible. So why not teach children how to fend for themselves ALL THE TIME. It not only gives them confidence over time, but done often, it becomes a natural instinct. Just like athletes. After constant training, their body and mind automatically know what to do in whatever situation comes across them in their sport. No different for children and their day to day life. This is free-range mentality. This also conditions the parents to start trusting their children as well. That no matter what is going on in the world, they know their children will always do the right thing. But we have to first TEACH them these things. Not shelter them from it. Sooner or later, they WILL come across it. It’s inevitable. So when they do, they should be well prepared.

  24. EricS March 3, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    @SOA: many people these days are privy to people hiding spare keys outside their homes. And some people stake out a place to find out where they hide it. It is ironic though, that back in the day when crime was much higher, home invasions were extremely rare compared to today.

    What I’m wondering is if the child was given a set of her own keys? When we were younger, we started walking to school on our own at age 6. At which point, we were given keys of our own, change for the pay phone, and a number to call in case we needed to. We were even taught if something happened, and our parents weren’t available (still at work), we had places to go to till they got home. We knew our neighbours. But we also knew to tell our parents of any of them did something “bad” to us. Which never, ever happened. Point being, our parents taught us as much as they could to deal with most contingencies.

    @Beth: the poster of the original FB post, inclined they never had that talk with their child when she got locked out. “but you don’t like me to cross the street without telling you, especially if it was dark.” Which would imply the parents telling her NOT to cross the street without telling them, especially if it was dark. That is the beautiful thing about children. They see and hear as they see and hear. They don’t doll it up, make excuses, or embellish like adults and teens do. Tell them exactly what they need to know. And answer their questions as honestly as possible. Even if you feel the answer is inappropriate. Better a smart child that will learn of it eventually, than an ignorant one who never does.

    @SKL: My parents taught us to save ourselves. Leave everything, grab your brother and sister and get out. Call them or my aunt and uncle. I tell mine the same thing. But I have a fire proof safe I keep all irreplaceable items. Which includes DVDs and USB sticks of family photos and videos.

  25. marie March 3, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    Donna said, There isn’t an assumption that we need a psychologist to handle grief.

    I do understand that no one is forced to talk to the counselors but there IS an assumption or the counselors wouldn’t be called in. Calling in the counselors for “grief events” is a recent phenomenon, perhaps in the last twenty years if not fewer. Death has been going on for quite a few more years than that and for all of that time, people have been able to grieve without professionals standing by.

    I am not saying that no one needs help or that everyone has a perfect family…but that has also been true for, well, forever.

  26. Beth March 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Sorry, but I don’t see “don’t cross the street alone without telling me, especially after dark” being even remotely the same as “don’t ever go to the houses of people we know” and “don’t ever get in cars of people we know”. You’re putting words in this mom’s mouth that we don’t know if she ever said.

  27. SOA March 3, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    marie: Then just send a note telling the school your kids are not to see the counselor. Done and done. But as someone pointed out not all parents can or want to pay for one on their own, so would be happy the school provided one free of charge.

    I am sure all those kids from Newtown are not resilient and are just lame kids because they needed to see counselors after that happened? Most of them still have a hard time going to school.

    Not every person or kid is the same. It has nothing to do with how free range you are. Some people internalize grief worse than others. That is just personality and even chemical since some people are more inclined to depression.

    The suck it up pal phrase for a child who just lost a classmate in kindergarten or first grade is ridiculous. If someone told my sons to suck it up if one of their classmates died because they asked to see a counselor that person would be getting told off by me two seconds later.

  28. Donna March 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    marie –

    Many here seem to have a attitude of “it wasn’t available when I was a kid so it is stupid now” and any change is unnecessary because things for me were just fine before. Did you ever consider that maybe things weren’t so great and this was a change made because schools identified that some children were having unresolved issues concerning the death of classmates in the past and they wanted to attempt to address those issues?

    I know many adults who have trouble dealing with loss. They have always existed. Many in generations before us sought outside counseling (ministers have been counseling for about as long as there have been ministers), for grief issues. So what you are really saying is “I never needed counseling for grief so nobody else should need it either.”

    I guess I just don’t understand the attitude that everything has to be exactly as it was in 1970 (or whenever). We are absolutely not allowed to grow, change, learn or improve. Counseling didn’t exist in schools in the 70s so it is bad today for no real other reason than it didn’t exist in the 70s.

  29. SKL March 3, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I am OK with them “offering” counseling. As far as I know, nobody ever “requires” it in a school setting.

    For those who are against it, what are you afraid of?

    I am not afraid of my kids getting messed up by what some professional adult might say to them (one time) while I’m not there.

    Considering all the things our school systems spend money on that are of no benefit whatsoever to my kids, I view temporary grief counselors to be one of the more benign examples.

    One thing I’ve been wondering about lately is whether it’s really healthy for people to be so adamantly against psychological help. I dunno. I’ve never consulted a counselor; it would feel like weakness, even though there are times I wonder if my kids or I could benefit. I think that reluctance on my part is nothing to be proud of.

  30. hineata March 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Yes, Donna, that.

    There were no counselors (that I’m aware of) that were available to children of the Blitz. They ‘toughed it out’ and for some the effects were long term. There were no counselors available to the shellshocked survivors of the WW1 trenches, and the results of that trickled down to my generation in the seventies, far worse for my father’s in the fifties. The Khmer refugee children we had at schools in our area had various issues, some not so obvious, some more so.

    On a more ‘single event’ kind of issue, the death via combine harvestor of one of my classmates in the seventies affected all of us to some degree, and it would have been rather nice to have been able to have talked about it at the time to a sensible adult, rather than the ‘debrief’ we children were left to give each other, which went from rumours to the extremely gory to consulting ouja boards to talk to him (I kid you not). The adults didn’t consider it necessary to talk about it.

  31. marie March 3, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Okay, I’m going to try this one more time. I am not against counseling. In fact, I see a counselor myself for issues related to grief. My point has nothing to do with whether people want or need to see a counselor.

    My point is this: By bringing counselors on-site for every incident (very, very few are Sandy Hook), the school is sending the message that grief requires professional help, that ordinary teachers and parents don’t know enough. That is the message I get from it. The truth is that most parents and teachers DO know enough to help children through a tough time, even an emotionally difficult time. We talk about teaching our kids to rely on their own abilities; why would we not acknowledge that adults have the ability to help the children close to them with something like death?

    If you get a different message, say, the message that help is available, then that’s fine.

    I do not say that everything should be the way it was when I was a child. In fact, I would say that the increased awareness of counseling services is a good thing because it lessens the stigma of needing some help.

    I remember reading (and I have had no luck finding it again today) an article that talked about the counselors that went to NYC after 9/11 to help with the trauma people experienced that horrific day. Much later, a study was done to find out how helpful the extra counselors were. Turns out that people relied more on family and friends to help them through their grief than on the counselors. (It also turns out that the counselors felt much better about themselves after having offered their services in NY. Wish I could find that article.)

    If you read my previous comments, you will see that I left plenty of room for those people–adults and children–who need professional help because of severe trauma.

  32. SKL March 3, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    I generally trust parents to know what is good for their kids, but teachers? I’m sorry, but I’m jaded. The teacher my kids had last year was a hag, and the things she said and did to / regarding my kid were unbelievable. Even though she has 25 years of teaching experience AND 3 sons.

    And I recall a 3rd grade teacher who was so notoriously bad that many of the kids came out of her class needing a shrink or ulcer meds. And a 2nd grade teacher who scared the crap out of *me* when she screamed at a little boy for taking too long to pick out a library book. (Her colleague explained that she was going through a nasty divorce. Sorry, that does not make it OK to terrorize little kids!) And those are just a few examples. So like I said, I’m jaded. Just because you’re in charge of a roomful of kids does not mean you have any understanding of their emotional needs during a time of grief or stress.

  33. marie March 3, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    I couldn’t find the article I was looking for but found this one interesting.

    …in the 10 years since 9/11, many have abandoned the approach — known as psychological or crisis debriefing — in light of studies suggesting it does little to prevent post-traumatic stress. Instead, a growing number of psychologists support a new approach to helping children and adults who show signs of distress immediately after disasters: “Psychological First Aid.”

    …the goal of the method is to reduce distress while linking survivors with key outside services. It is meant to be flexible — highly specific and sensitive to factors including timing, age and an individual’s personal preferences….

    “Prior to PFA being routinely used, oftentimes providers would swoop in and try to ‘help’ everyone,” Watson told HuffPost. “Implying that a disaster survivor ‘needs’ interventions in order to recover implies that they don’t have the resources to recover on their own. They may accept this help, which actually removes an opportunity for them to work out their problems on their own.

  34. SOA March 3, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    Heck I known grown ass adults who turn into sniveling hysterical criers when their elderly relative dies when they knew it was coming and the person lived a long life. So obviously people don’t deal that well with death. I have seen a bunch of people like that.

    My StepDad lost his crap when his brother died even though he had not spoken to his brother in years. So in general to think people just get over it on their own with help from friends and family, well maybe they do and maybe they don’t. It would depend on their family and that bond and their overall mental state, etc.

    Some family are not supportive. Some people may already have mental issues and a death can push them over the edge. I would say people should do whatever they think they need and if that means the school offers a free counselor if they want to use it, I am not going to complain.

    I wish they had more of that for kids. Our counselors did nothing but working out schedules and stuff with college applications. So when I actually went to one with a problem and talked about killing myself, she did not have time for that and dismissed me. They did not help anyone mentally. They sucked at that part of their job.

    So having an actual counselor who does not just do schedule changes I could talk to would have been a good thing.

  35. Jessica March 3, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    I still remember being about nine or ten and walking home from school in winter, in about a foot of snow (no hills – lived in a really flat area). I got home, the house was empty, and I had no key. I walked a few houses down to a neighbor’s house where they fed me and gave me warm, dry socks. I left a message on my parent’s answering machine so they would know where I was when they got home. I think the biggest thing in this case was that we knew these neighbors, as well as several others on our street, and I felt comfortable going to their house. If we don’t get to know our neighbors, and let our kids get to know them as well, how can we expect them to ask them for help? And we might not be telling them “don’t talk to strangers”, but just about everything else in the world is and kids are really good at internalizing those kinds of things.

  36. Donna March 3, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    marie –

    I can’t for the life of me see how saying “counselors are available if you need someone to talk to” translates into “grief requires professional help.” If it did, wouldn’t we all believe that we constantly needed counseling based on the mere fact that counselors exist? Or how about people who work in jobs where counseling services are available for employees (just about every government agency and large employer)? People who are members of organizations who offer counseling services to their members? I’ve fallen into all those categories at some point in my life and I’ve never once thought the offer of counseling services to people was a statement that all lawyers or all county government employees need counseling.

    It is clear from your own comments that you believe that counseling should only be used for “severe trauma,” but some people like counselors for “lesser” things as well. I know people who simply like having a neutral party to talk things over with and have been going to counseling for much of their lives.

    And, yes, some people WANT counseling to deal with death. I doubt that most NEED counseling for this, but some may WANT counseling for death issues and I think it is great that the school provides it for kids who want it because kids can’t just go out and hire a counselor on their own at 8. Kids are left to just suffer if they can’t talk to their parents or their parents aren’t meeting their needs.