July 02, 2015

Q: Our son will turn 5 years old in two weeks and he wants a Batman-themed birthday party. We haven't mentioned the recent shootings in Colorado with him at all and we're not sure what to do. We never announced the birthday theme, but we have invited his class to the party.  However, we don't know the other families at all or whether they are connected to the tragedy.  Should we proceed with the Batman party as if nothing happened? Or should we steer him toward something else and tell him why?

A: Many parents are concerned how to address the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado with their children, even without upcoming birthdays--so let me begin there. There are many serious issues that adults should ponder, and they begin with the question: "How could this have happened?" It is important to recognize that if a young child asks this question, he is really asking, "Am I safe today?  Is my family safe today?" Small children can't understand social problems and they need reassurance that they are still protected in ordinary ways.

Ultimately, the tragedy in Aurora is not about Batman. Your son is entitled to love Batman and to enjoy Batman like millions of children and grown-ups.  You should consider how committed your son is to the Batman theme for the party. See if he is wrapped up in this expectation or if he could be distracted by a different action character. Contact your child's teacher to find out what your son's classroom conversation has been about the shootings and whether or not the class is aware of it. What the teacher says may further influence your point of view about the party theme. Contact a few parents as well to get a sense of community reactions.  And if you live relatively close to the site of the shootings, the likelihood that you know someone involved does increase. All these factors will influence the decision you make.

Whatever you decide, I advise against lying to your son. If you feel you must change the party theme, tell him honestly that a very bad thing happened in a movie theater last week far away and that the movie happened to be Batman.  Explain that reminders of this movie might make some people feel very sad right now, and that while you can have a smaller Batman celebration at home, the bigger party shouldn't remind anyone of sad things. Answer all of his questions truthfully, without dwelling on morbid or sensational aspects of the situation.

The real world often seems full of sadness and evil. This is always a problem for parents, who are walking a tightrope of protecting their children's innocence and joy while maintaining honesty about harsh realities. As parents, we are often forced to speak about the unspeakable, but we can still do so in a way that respects a child's developmental level, capacity to understand, and need for hope.

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger