NEW YORK – There's snow on the ground in Londonderry, N.H., nearly 200 miles to the north of the still-raw slaughter at a Connecticut elementary school, and dad, Eric Heenan, found himself in a routine fuss with his 9-year-old son about boots.
“It’s not cool to wear snow boots to school,” he said Monday, “and then I was like, you know what, God forbid the last conversation we have is this. There but for the grace of God go we.”
Parents around the country are letting the small stuff slide, indulging their kids just a little bit, relieved as Heenan is to have them safe only a few days after a gunman killed 20 students and six adults in Newtown.
In Safety Harbor, Fla., close to Tampa Bay, Christie O’Sullivan feels it with her two boys, 5 and 6, the latter the same age as many of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary.
She returned home that Friday afternoon, several hours after Adam Lanza’s rampage and suicide, to find a sink clogged by toilet paper and dirty tissues all over the floor of her bathroom as she tried to clean for a holiday party.
“I had to just stop and appreciate my messy bathroom,” she said. “Having a 6-year-old myself and imagining him seeing this horror in his life crushes me. Just the very thought of it makes me break down into tears.”
Child experts urge, among other things, that parents worried about the reaction of their children to the Newtown tragedy maintain routines. But at least two acknowledged O’Sullivan’s loving act is perfectly acceptable as she and other parents work through their own grief and anxiety. At least for a time.
“It’s a very understandable, emotional reaction that we have,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The function is really helping parents to deal with our sense of helplessness.”
The bottom line, said New York University’s child and adolescent psychiatry professor Glenn Saxe: “If there is any time to be a little more flexible about routines and rules in support of our children, it is now.”
Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook after shooting his mother at the home they shared. The first two of his tiny dead, Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner, were buried Monday.
Cortney Green’s son isn't 6, like Jack and Noah. He just turned 9 – three years younger than his older sister – and got to eat leftover birthday cake for breakfast on Monday, the first day back to school for millions after the Newtown massacre.
“Other times when I’ve allowed an indulgence, it is the recognition their childhoods are rapidly going by and figuring an occasional caving in does little harm in the big scheme of things,” said Green, an English instructor at a community college in Columbia, S.C.
“This time, it was definitely Newtown and my apprehension about sending them off to school, knowing they are without me most of the day,” she said.
The hours away from her three children, ages 8, 5 and 3, had single mom Tara Bordelon in Alexandria, La., breaking one of her hard-and-fast rules over the weekend: no kids in her bed at night. She couldn’t wait to gather them under the covers for a movie. Her tears came as two fell asleep on one of her shoulders and the third on the other.
“I just want them to be innocent,” she said. “He didn’t hurt just those families. He hurt everybody.”
As for Christmas, Heenan and his wife were on the fence about a couple of gifts just a week ago, an iPod Touch and the latest Nintendo DS for his fourth-grader and a younger son, age 7.
“Now, we’re kind of like, all right. It’s Christmas and thank God,” he said.
Robin Vilchez, 30, of Manhattan and his wife are on that page. There might just be a Wii U under the tree for his kids, ages 7 and 4.
“We want to see them glow,” Vilchez said. “We want to see every moment how they glow.”
Amy Connor in Northport, N.Y., is a mom of two. She’s also a theater director overseeing a local production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Something profound struck her Saturday morning.
“We had a sold-out house – 400 people, most of them children,” she said. “As the show let out there was the usual crush, the long lines for autographs, the children wanting to stay and meet the cast. The noise, the impatience, the whining, the crying.”
None of that happened as it usually does during the show’s holiday run.
“In all that chaos,” Connor said, “for the very first time, not one single parent yelled at their child. Instead, I saw hands being held, faces being touched, shoulders being hugged. I saw gratitude spilling from every parent.”