What would you say if your child came home from school and told you a group of girls had been repeatedly picking on her?
What would you tell your boy if he came downstairs and told you cyber bullies have been harassing him?
What happened when you encountered injustice, cruelty, harassment, or bullying? As a child? As a teen? As an adult? What are you modeling as you help your kids navigate these stormy waters?
At first I couldn’t bear the media or to be part of the outcry over Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide, the latest tragedy in a seemingly growing tide of such deaths. I wondered how much the internet contributed to Jamey’s death. I worried about the “contagion factor” in teen suicide. Not wanting to add even a single drop to that overfull bucket I felt it would be better to leave the family to mourn their boy in private so I stepped back, bowed my head for them and sheltered my family from the discussion.
Then Candace at SeeMummyJuggle wrote about a recent bullying/suicide incident in Ontario. A conversation broke out in her comment section. As I read the post and then the comment threads it became clear to me that my emotional default to remain quiet is not the answer. Nor is blame:
I wrote: “It is horrifying to speak to our kids about such deeply troubling subjects, but we have to talk and talk and then talk some more about bullying, about the consequences, about what to do if the situation arises. Blame isn't really the point, the point is to create an atmosphere of openness so kids do not have to live in fear or swallow their pain, we have to change attitudes, and if/when that is impossible, we have to try to change behaviours, policies, even laws. Before more children take their own lives.”
Kids are killing themselves and despite public outcry, celebrity campaigns, and new school protocols. Somehow attitudes have not yet shifted enough to make room for our teens when they feel emotionally marginalized or persecuted for their sexual orientation.
Often teenagers don’t speak up. They are caught in a vortex of emotion and despite their new independence and maturity; their decision-making capacities are still developing so we have to make sure to encourage an atmosphere of safety for them. We have to do for bullying and teen suicide what we did for sex: learn to speak openly and without shame. That means not pointing fingers at other parents. That means working together. It means not dismissing kids who may indeed be bullies, but who very likely have issues that underlie the bullying. That means listening carefully and with love to our children, even when they seem distant. Maybe especially when they seem distant. Most importantly, we have to give our kids enough security to open up to us or a trusted adult about the hurt. Only then can there be healing.
Teenagers spend so much time online it can be difficult for parents to know what is happening. Our kids are part of networks far beyond our control. Online can be both the source of the problem, and the place they turn for solutions. Any teen with a webcam can use the screen as a shield and words as weapons. Any kid with a webcam can invite the world into their bedroom.
It is however, too simplistic to see the internet and social media platforms as the problem. A group of teens in Vancouver turned to their computers and created a video response to Jamey’s suicide called PawsUpForeverProject. It is raw and emotional; it is webcams in bedrooms and teens of all kinds with their paws fiercely, tentatively, bravely, emotionally raised against bullying. Kids with webcams like these are shifting attitudes. They are opening portals of hope for each other in the darkness and fear.
Watch the PawsUpForeverProject. Show your kids the links and phone numbers at the end. Read Annie Fox's Broken Kids Are Breaking All Of Us, check out the “It Gets Better” links. Talk to your kids. Really listen to Lady Gaga's message. No matter what you think of her as an artist, she is leading her fans in a revolution of self acceptance and a refusal to be silenced. I bet your kids already know most of this. But do they know they can talk openly with you?
As adults, as parents, as members of a wider community of families, we must set aside our own fears, protectiveness or defensiveness and contribute to creating an environment in which children can speak up instead of feeling so silenced that they shut down, turn inward, or worse, see suicide as the only way out of their pain.
“Rather, research shows the best route is promoting mental wellness, to give young people tools for dealing with stress and emotional challenges, and a sense of where they can go for help. Having that help (a guidance counsellor or school nurse) readily available is also essential. Increasingly, sport and community groups realize that young people in distress don’t necessarily turn to their parents but may confide in a trusted coach, teacher, religious figure or employer."
~ from the Globe and Mail’s four-part action plan in the battle against teen suicide, the fourth installment of their series on Teen Suicide)
I’ve been asking myself the kind of questions I prefer not to poke at very often. The kind of questions with answers that feel rather like looking at myself under fluorescent lights. In a full length mirror. First thing in the morning.
One of those questions involves the never-ending piles which sprawl across the surfaces of my days. The answers, at first glance, have to do with things like school notices that must be filled out this exact minute or I can’t go on the field trip, and laundry emergencies like where’s my gym uniform?, and the ordinary immediacies like Ew! The dog has been sick on the rug again. There never seems to be enough time or energy left at the end of the evening for sorting and filing and sifting all of the day's detritus.
Upon closer and less forgiving scrutiny, I know the piles are an inescapable reality and I need to cope with them better than I do. They are psychic clutter, as well as a physical eyesore. They are composed of one-third necessity, one-third good intention and the last third? The last third is a sticky mixture of excuses and avoidance laced with a compulsive magpie-like love of recipes, articles, shiny words, and kid art.
No matter how hard I stare down those ones, the magpie piles, I know I can never entirely get rid of the kid art. I saved a marker-rendered bouquet in bright primary colours made by my nephew when the idea of being a mother would have made my ovaries pucker. There is simply no changing one’s nature.
I know I hold on to the kid art because the first lopsided circle, the first stick figure with hands like two sunshines with a hundred rays, the first medusa-like rendition of My Mummy are precious to me. So, for a very a long while, the kid art spread like a an invasive paper-and-crayon vine from fridge to wall to dining room corner to, eventually, to a storage bin in the kid in question's room.
However! There has been an answer of sorts. I have rooted out the spreading art and replaced it with a revolving art gallery of 5 frames.
I used Nexxt suspense frames which are easily taken-apart and put-back-together frames made of 2 panes of glass between which you can suspend any kind of art, even the awkwardly large kindergarten creations. I keep the best piece of art from any given term or season and rotate the gallery. A hidden bonus is that sandwiched between the panes of glass, last November’s field of poppies can easily tuck in behind this term’s self-portrait until it is eventually time to retire the poppies or pumpkins or copy-cat Miró to the big Tupperware bin in the attic.
Now, if only I could solve the problem of what to do with all these pretty, promising articles about de-cluttering...
No matter how many years pass between my school days and a new September, come Labour Day I feel a sudden clutch at my stomach and a pressing need to sharpen pencils. Now, as a mother, I also feel a pinch at my heart as the slow days of summer-flushed cheeks come to an end with the urgency of a morning alarm clock. This year, instead of spending Labour Day cleaning June’s snacks out of the backpack, we went to an “Out With A Bang” picnic at Jericho beach.
As rays of sun lit the trees like candles our kids lounged on blankets, poised between summer and September. I watched them as they eyed the adults who were discussing the imminent realities of family life stressed by schedules, homework and a probable teacher’s strike.
Savouring the last drops of summertime on a blanket spread over dry grass I let go of the back-to-school anticipation and chose instead to focus on the golden slanting light, the mellow ocean-kissed air. Instead of regret for summer’s passing, I felt full of gratitude for the moment and the beauty of the place we call home.
We forget sometimes how much of what our children see, the things we model and the places, events and states of mind to which we choose to expose them shape the perspective and the emotional temperature of our kid’s lives.
That night I was reminded of why my husband and I chose this city as a place to create a future: spread out on the banks at Jericho were multiple generations and ethnicities on picnic blankets, hipsters playing Frisbee in between unfazed Canada geese, games of boules and bacci and volleyball on the beach, barbeques and Mountain Equipment Co-Op gear scattered under generous willows, several benign bottle-collecting hobos, the ocean bordering one side and habitat for creatures like beavers, bats and bees along the other edge while the mountains turned slowly purple in the distance.
In our little encampment of baskets and blankets, there were lolling dogs, bicycles in the grass and families making divorce and remarriage come together. There were random acts of kindness, – as I pulled into the parking lot, a shirtless guy in a pickup leaned out his window fluttering a paid parking ticket and the young guys nearby offered up a bike to help someone who thought they had lost a bag - there was an abundance of local food to share and a gray rabbit that kept darting by to remind us of the creatures with whom we live even when we forget to look.
Moving across the Rockies meant my husband and I made a life far from family and many dear friends, and sometimes I regret the distance I put between all that and us, but on this Labour Day, perched on the edge of transition we were handed bread, kindness, laughter, and community. As we drove home, the sky was smeared magenta, “sailors delight”, and I thought that even as seasons change and challenges loom, this generous place has imparted a profound sense of security. Sharpening the pencils has never felt so easy.
Image Credit: keepitsurreal via Flickr