The wave of shocking suicides by young adults, teens and tweens, who were allegedly being bullied and sexual harassed, have many parents, schools and communities reeling about how to stop the tide.
When a rash of troubling behavior—and tragic outcomes—like this hits, it's natural for parents, role models and youth alike to feel outraged or even powerless.
Yet the search for solutions can't be boiled down to passing new legislation or blaming everything from schools to technology. A radical shift in cultural norms needs to happen for long-term change to take hold here. Otherwise, we will forever be stuck with many disrespectful norms instead—from intolerance to bullying, cyberbullying, sexual harassment, violence, cliques (among teens and adults), the "-isms," homophobia and hating ourselves or others.
We all pay the price for not practicing a new normal: respect for all.
We can choose to change
I thought I wanted to make respect the new status quo before. As a new mom, now I’m beyond impatient. More than 15 of my friends and acquaintances had babies this year. My 8-month-old sweet boy was born on Valentines Day. I won’t "accept" these disrespectful norms for these babies. I won’t forget the young ones who took their lives after being pushed too far.
All of us deserve better. We all deserve to learn *how* to be compassionate with ourselves and others. To live as equals. To be safe. To be ourselves and have our rights protected by one another. To be respected and pass it on.
If this is too lofty of a goal for you right now, I want you to think bigger.
I had the honor last weekend to meet two peace and nonviolence activists who had to think bigger to change our world. And they’re still doing it.
Father John Dear was nominated by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the Nobel Peace Prize. Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette co-founded the groundbreaking Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and worked side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the Carry the Vision conference in my community, Dr. Lafayette told the youth and adults there: “Fear can cause you to disrespect yourself.” Yet we have a choice both leaders reminded us. The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.
It’s heart-wrenching to think about the young people who chose this year alone to no longer exist amid violence. Phoebe Prince, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, and now Tyler Clementi. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youths age 10 to 17. So there are likely others in which no one made the connection between being harassed, bullied or persecuted and their suicides. And let’s not forget the alleged "bullies" in all these cases (whether identified or not) represent a loss too. Lost self-respect and lost potential.
3 steps for parents and role models
Here's how to stay hopeful. There is a unifying social change goal we can call get behind. Even if disrespect has dragged us down or led us astray, I believe we all want respect for ourselves and others. And so we must all take steps to make this our default setting.
RESPECT BASIC NO. 1: SET BOUNDARIES—SPEAK UP!
We all need to set boundaries and speak up to end disrespect. Go for zero tolerance and no bystanding. From the Internet to the dinner table, make your boundaries clear for respectful language and behavior under your roof. And think of a creative consequence when the line is crossed, like having your child volunteer with an organization that is fighting for equality or against hate crimes.
Look at your boundaries too. If this means you stop cussing, gossiping or putting down others in front of your kids—good start. If it means you actively say “no” when you see people being bullied or discriminated against—yes! Coach your kids or students how to safely and assertively set boundaries if they are being hurt or see someone else getting hurt.
RESPECT BASIC NO. 2: BE COMPASSIONATE—LISTEN
At the heart of these so-called bullycides is a major muscle that is underdeveloped: compassion. We need to develop compassionate habits in our hearts and homes. One way to start is by learning the Respect Levels of Listening. The first one is: It’s about ME. Guess what, we get to listen to our guts and set boundaries/be kind where needed. The second level is: It’s about UnderStanding (or "us"). The key here is getting curious about others who are different from us or who have different perspectives. Or just really listening (as if you could repeat what’s said word for word) when someone is sharing about themselves.
compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it
How to have compassion for ourselves is another skill we need to master. It's not easy, I know. I also can't know what was in Tyler Clementi’s heart when he took that leap. But somewhere in there, I’m guessing, was a sense of being unloved or unaccepted or unworthy. To have compassion for ourselves enables us to have compassion for others (and it works well the other way around too). Compassion can prompt us to take the next step when we are devastated by disrespect or we see someone else being harmed: Get Help.
RESPECT BASIC NO. 3: GET HELP
At a minimum, we can show our kids and the youth we support ways to be resourceful. They need to learn the value of getting help and what it looks like. For example, getting help can be talking to a trusted adult, calling an anonymous helpline, finding a support group, or if you need to, calling the cops! Ask your kids of all ages tonight: If you were being hurt, what are some ways you’d get help? And then brainstorm to make their list nice and long. You might not be on it. Don’t take it personal. The goal is for them to have many, many lifelines in their pocket.
If one of the Rutgers students accused of posting online video of Tyler had been operating from compassion, had set a boundary "no, stop, this isn't right," and had gotten help intervening from the dorm RA (for example), maybe we'd have a different outcome here.
Getting help needs to be the new normal vs. a risky move. And when our youth ask for help, we need to throw them a rope instantly and not let go. The worst thing that can happen when you ask for help (and I’ve been there) is to be left hanging. Part of this “getting help” skill we need to model is the resolve to never stop trying to keep get help when you need it. Our kids need to get the message that until they find a refuge and chance to recover, they are well worth the effort to keep trying.
And we need to create more refuges from disrespect. Is your home and heart one? If not, you now know right where to begin.
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