Parent Together: A Promise For The Future

Parent. It is a noun, and it is a verb, pointed out Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) Communications Director Nicole Hockley and Advocacy Director Mark Barden, and it is the action form of that verb that is the thrust of the new SHP program, Parent Together. The initiative was rolled out Thursday, November 14, exactly eleven months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Both Ms Hockley and Mr Barden lost children, Dylan and Daniel, on 12/14.

“It is about working together with other parents, and thinking about parenting as not just about your child, but about all children,” said Ms Hockley.

Ms Hockley and Mr Barden elaborated on the press release from November 14 that described the Parent Together program as one using “proven tools and programs for parents to implement in their communities that focus on mental wellness, community connectedness, and gun safety.”

“Our main goal,” said Ms Hockley, “is about resetting the conversation around gun violence. It’s not about the gun, it’s about the causes of gun violence.” Nor, she said, is it the “Trojan horse” people worry about. “This is not about gun control,” she stressed. “There is no hidden agenda in Parent Together.”

“The language of Parent Together encapsulates our message,” Mr Barden said. “Sandy Hook Promise has never been just about guns or mental health. It’s holistic. This is the concept of a parent’s love, and having the conversation [about gun violence] in a novel way,” he said.

The Sandy Hook Promise organization, Ms Hockley said, would like to increase the number of people making the promise to Parent Together from the November 15 number of 258,000 to 500,000. The Parent Together Promise is an evolution of the original Sandy Hook Promise launched last winter on its www.sandyhookpromise.org website. “All of the lessons we’ve learned over the past year, and the research we’ve done, have led to this Version II of the Promise,” Ms Hockley said.

The new Sandy Hook Promise is a promise to “join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country.”


The Love Of Children

Parent Together is about putting the love of children first, a theme that seems to resonate with parents everywhere they have traveled this past year, and building a conversation from that, said Ms Hockley.

Part of the research leading to Parent Together involved looking at best practice programs around the country already proven to be successful. “We want to see what we can we do to make those ideas work on a national level. There are some absolute jewel ideas,” Ms Hockley said, that could be implemented in homes, in school, in pediatricians’ offices, and at the community level. Those tools will be rolled out in early 2014, she said.

In the meantime, the important thing for Parent Together is to engage people, she stressed, particularly in the conversation about mental health. Earlier diagnosis and intervention could happen if a simple mental health diagnostic and assessment were part of every pediatric check-up, just as assessments for normal bodily functions are, she gave as an example.

On a far simpler level, she said, teaching children to reach out to lonely, isolated individuals could make a difference. Regional programs such as Ben’s Bells and Hearts of Hope, which now have Newtown chapters, are complementary to the Parent Together program, Ms Hockley said. “We learn from our children. Children have that innocence and can educate adults,” she said.

The tools and programs SHP will introduce in 2014, Ms Hockley said, are based on research and “hundreds of conversations with people of different backgrounds, to get viewpoints on gun violence in communities. We looked for their thoughts on how to protect their children. What we found is that people don’t want to be told [by outside sources]; they want community intervention.”

Gun violence includes not only homicides, she explained, but suicides and accidental gun deaths, all adding up to the more than 30,000 gun violence deaths that have occurred already this year.


Becoming Aware

“Bringing awareness and education to people, especially in urban areas, is critical,” Ms Hockley said, although gun violence is not just an urban problem, as many including herself once believed, she said, with Sandy Hook being a prime example.

In traveling across the country to learn about the needs, Ms Hockley said that the SHP team worked to engage with people. “We talked to people, then showed them excerpts from the 60 Minutes CBS news program [an April interview with seven members of families who lost loved ones 12/14], and that really brought it home — that this could happen to them, it could happen there, as it happened here,” said Ms Hockley. “For me and those parents who can, to bring this awareness that you can’t turn away [from the reality of gun violence], is a powerful message. This could be your parent, your spouse, your child, and you can’t wait for someone else to take care of it for you,” she said.

If Sandy Hook Promise had existed before 12/14, in some manner, Ms Hockley mused, providing tools such as Parent Together proposes, “Maybe I would have been one of those parents to not turn away and to become involved.”

Parent Together is not saying anyone is a “bad” parent, Ms Hockley said, particularly in Newtown. “Newtown, in my personal opinion, is at the epicenter of a massive tragedy, and still going through it, so we put no pressure on this town. A lot of things have gone right here. We are all figuring this out as we go,” Ms Hockley said.

Because Sandy Hook Promise is a small organization, it is impossible to spread out all over the country, she said. The organization is developing a website so that tools are accessible to people nationwide, recognizing different attitudes and needs in different regions of the country. “We will be focusing on two to three key states, still to be identified, to do a deeper dive, a sort of pilot test,” as Parent Together gains momentum, said Ms Hockley. For example, the group might send members out to help implement a program — such as a pediatric mental health assessment — in Sacramento, then find out if what works there might work in a city like Des Moines, Iowa.

“We are approaching this in a very businesslike way, not just with passion,” she said.

The approach is from policy initiatives and conversations at the community level, and the solution is not just looking at children, said Mr Barden. “[Gun violence] is a public health crisis, as is anything that causes 31,000 people to die on a regular basis,” he said. Adults must be the role models in a cultural change, Mr Barden said.

“Sit down at the table and have dinner with your family. Make that commitment to connect. Push the dialogue,” urged Mr Barden. “It starts at home,” he noted.

“Reach out to someone sitting alone or having a hard day, and engage them in conversation,” he suggested, as a way both adults and children can begin to implement change. Placing a photograph of his son Daniel on the table, he added, “This little guy knew that already.” Over and again, Mr Barden and his wife Jackie have been told how the 6-year-old was always quick to seek out and try to befriend the kid who sat alone.


It Will Take Time

Sandy Hook Promise staff and volunteers realize that implementing what is essentially a cultural change in attitude about gun violence will take time. Other organizations have been successful, though, pointed out Ms Hockley. The designated driver is part of our culture now, whereas a generation ago, it had not been introduced. The best safety features are now selling points of cars, and wearing a seatbelt is something everyone does. All of these efforts were achieved through education and awareness campaigns, she said.

Looking forward a year, Ms Hockley said that Sandy Hook Promise would envision people being engaged and wanting to be a part of Parent Together, “and sharing it.” In the long-term, success of Parent Together would be the successful implementation of programs nationwide, “ultimately preventing gun violence,” she said.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” asked Mr Barden, “if Newtown and Sandy Hook could be known as a beacon of how to Parent Together? I’m so hopeful and so inspired by this, to see it continuing to grow and have a positive impact.”

“It could become the way it should be,” said Ms Hockley, “and that will help reduce violence in general.”

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