It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.
People who know me well, know I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon of any snake oil trend society is selling to make me feel more “progressive” as a human being. However, when the widely controversial 13 Reasons Why Netflix series came to my attention recently—first through my daily news feed—then as an important “Emotional Communication” from the schools, I knew I needed to take a closer look. The closer look for me came in the form of binge-watching 768 minutes to get me to Hannah Baker’s 13th reason why she killed herself. Yes, it’s true…if you don’t already know…the central character in this series is a young teen who takes her own life. While that sounds like something you’d rather run far away from, I implore parents to join me on taking a “closer” look. Because no one—not one—is immune.
At its core, 13 Reasons Why is a realistic exploration of the profound impact our interactions have on others. Our words, actions, tone—even our availability to one another—matter. Matter a lot. While it’s true that we can’t always determine who is struggling inside, we can certainly be sure that everyone struggles at one time or another. For teens, entering middle and high school means an increasing amount of independence, when many of them look to friends instead of parents for guidance. The fluctuation of teen hormones and the undeniable pressure to fit in with their peers, not only clouds the judgment of vulnerable kids, but can easily make them more susceptible to risky behavior.
As a parent of three boys ages eleven to fifteen, I stand firmly on the well-known scripture “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). To that point, I vigorously pray that on this parenting journey, I do my best to guide them effectively—supervising the right choices—because as a deeply flawed human being, I know full well that when temptation and opportunity meet, something can always go wrong.
13 Reasons Why examines a number of ways our kids encounter the crossroads of temptation and opportunity, and I won’t sugarcoat it—it’s very difficult to watch. The unyielding look into particularly difficult topics including depression, rape and suicide also make it a very important show to watch—especially if you have teens in your life that you care deeply about. Please don’t ignore these uncomfortable truths.
Here are 13 reasons (in no particular order) why we need to keep the conversation about these difficult topics alive:
#1—Your Kids Aren’t Living in a Bubble
“No one loses their innocence. It is either taken or given away willingly.”
While we’d all like to think of our kids as little pillars of excellence and innocence, sheltered from the scary realities of this ugly world, the truth is they aren’t. In fact, while we want desperately to protect them from anything bad that could come their way, without them understanding the dangers that may lie in wait, it would impossible for them to be a light in the darkest places. Knowledge is power.
It’s best to open a dialogue with your children about this particular series because unless you’re living in an ‘old order’ Amish community or North Korea, where technology is forbidden, chances are your preteens and teens have heard about it or have already perhaps binge-watched it without you. While the series is ABSOLUTELY too intense and graphic for children under 15 years old to watch, it still opens up a great opportunity to discuss social themes and situations with a younger, preteen audience, including the consequences of bullying—without carrying the heavy burden of the show’s violence.
For my 15-year-old son, I think it is very important we watch the show together and/or explore difficult themes so that, even if he doesn’t encounter these issues personally, he can be a voice and light for those that do.
#2—Mistakes are Part of Life
“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
We all make mistakes. In fact, there are times when we think we’ll never recover from our mistakes. For teens, who are still physically and mentally developing, it’s easy for them to find it difficult to see beyond the mistake and the consequences that come with it. Teaching our children (and ourselves) how to practice grace and forgiveness is so important for those friends or loved ones in our lives who may be watching us to model our behavior.
Teach your kids to view each mistake as an opportunity to learn, grow and potentially…teach others.
#3—Bullying Wears Many Disguises
“Never do a wrong thing to make a friend–or to keep one.”
–Robert E. Lee
The children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” was a blatant lie. Words can—in fact—break one’s spirit.
Bullying occurs every day, in every school. Yes, I mean every. So if you think you’ve placed your child in a Christian or other private, “sheltered” environment to avoid this…you’re in denial. While it’s easy to identify the prominent effects of a fist fight, the subtleties of bullying range from hurtful gossip to emotional attacks, to social media harassment. Regardless of the disguise it takes on, bullying is destructive.
I laugh when I hear parents of toddlers, gently telling them things like “use your words,” because the truth is, often the wrong word can create irreparable damage to one’s integrity. Talk to your kids about the destructive power of words and how one otherwise, “innocent” comment or suggestion can put a permanent mark on someone’s reputation. Just as importantly…open up a dialogue with your child to make sure help is sought if they are a victim of bullying.
#4—The Power of Social Media Can Leave a Trail of Destruction
“Distracted from distraction by distraction”
Don’t lie to yourself, we are all distracted by social media. One of the things I tell my boys all the time is: when you take part in social media of any kind, you’re leaving a permanent digital footprint, one that can help or hinder your future. Having the instantaneous ability to send or receive information—and disinformation—can lead to just as instantaneous, even devastating consequences. Remember the Public Service Announcement from the 70s and 80s: “Do you know where your children are?” While it’s easy to think we’ve got the lowdown on everything going on with our kids when they’re with us in the home…it’s 2017 folks—so unless you’re shadowing their every virtual move, do we really know where our kids are?
Our crazy world treats social media like a reality TV show. Because of that, our youth have less self-esteem and less of an ability to sustain themselves through adversity. Teens see themselves through a reflection of pixels…with Snapchat photos and Instagram posts dictating their identities.
When you take one look at the opioid crisis facing our nation right now, it’s easy to see the connection between the “virtual” numbing we do with our feelings through social media to the physical numbing some do with the rampant availability of drugs like heroin. Young people are increasingly becoming strangers to real feelings. In many ways, social sites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat have become the popular drugs our teens are overdosing on…every single day.
Do you know where your kids are?
How often do you talk to them about their social media use? Do you know which accounts your child uses? Do you have access to the content they see daily? Remember, ignorance is dangerous.
“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Kindness wins every time. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to opt for kindness. Every. Single. Time. I don’t like my boys using the word hate…because we should teach (and model) the fact that we should never hate anyone, even our “worst enemies.” Everyone has something good about them (even it’s like digging through 70 tons of muck to find it). Find the redeeming quality and love the person for that. Always remember a smile or a hello could make someone’s day…perhaps even be the one happy point that gives someone the hope or encouragement they need. Imagine if your smile gave someone the courage to reach out for help? Make a difference…every day.
In one of the final episodes of the series, the main character, Clay says to the school counselor: “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”
Imagine if we all did just that…would the world still be so dark?
#6—One Authentic Friendship is Far More Valuable Than 10 million Facebook “Friends”
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
People always disappoint. It’s a given. The sooner we come to terms with that fact, the more time we’ll have to start improving our own character flaws. Authentic friendships are the “gems in the rough” of relationships which have the power to save lives. Seeking deeper, trusting friendships instead of popularity, allows you to be yourself with ease. Having an authentic friendship allows you to not only notice changes, struggles and out-of-character behaviors in that person, but that person can notice changes in you too—which can be lifesaving. When we are vulnerable, others feel comfortable to be vulnerable too. Encourage your children to make meaningful connections with their peers—letting authenticity guide the way.
#7—There’s Wisdom in Going With Your Gut
“Trust instinct to the end, even though you can give no reason.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Teach your teens to trust their instincts. When they find themselves in a situation that doesn’t feel right or look right, change course. If someone’s behavior concerns them or seems off, teach them to not be shy to ask or seek help with compassion.
I encourage my boys to pause and pray when they feel that gut instinct kick in.
#8—Create an Atmosphere of Love and Trust
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
For my boys, roughly 10 hours of every day is spent on a bus, in a classroom or on the field for sports. Combine that with sleeping and homework and that’s a lot of time during the week without active family communication. So while I need to trust and pray that they are making good decisions when they leave the house in the morning, we as parents need to make the time we do have together count.
It’s easy for a teen to lose a sense of comfort when communicating with you if they know that anytime they open up they will be met with the third-degree. Be open, so they’ll feel comfortable to do the same. Don’t get me wrong…I am definitely not saying we need to create a more laissez-faire relationship when it comes to discipline with our kids, but teens need to know that talking to you and advocating for themselves will be met with love and respect.
If your child was being bullied in school, would he or she feel comfortable telling you? What if they were sexually assaulted? What if your child made a terrible mistake, one that might even be illegal, do you trust that he or she would confide in you? Remember, our kids are watching our responses to our own struggles and missteps. I’m preaching to myself when I say: be your best self for your kids. Admit your mistakes in front of your kids, so they see that it’s okay to share and discuss our imperfections.
#9—Turning a Blind Eye to Underage Drinking and Drug Use Has Deadly Consequences
“We are only as blind as we want to be.”
It’s never okay to allow underage drinking and drug use…regardless of the liberal viewpoints you hold dear. Rationalizing substance use and abuse with things like, “They’re going to drink anyway. They might as well do it at home” is a poor excuse for parenting and simply WRONG. Condoning illegal (and potentially addictive) behavior puts children at risk for SO many things. Let’s face it, even adults under the influence make bad decisions. Turning a blind eye to the illegal drug and alcohol use of (still-developing) teens puts them at a heightened risk of hurting themselves and others.
#10—Your Identity Should Be Rooted in Faith, Not Peers
“Be assured, if you walk with Him and look to Him, and expect help from Him, He will never fail you.”
Teens need to root their identity in something stronger than their reflection or their peers. While the world is full of counterfeit truth claims, the most important thing you can teach your teen is choosing God’s reality rather than fake versions of reality.
Teaching your teen how to discover what it means to live out their faith is a lifelong journey as we integrate what we believe with every area of life…including middle and high school. In my house, we feel it’s imperative to help our boys understand that God is personal and desires to reveal His truth to them. Prayer, scripture, church and meaningful discussion help provide the necessary tools to let them know that He communicates with us all the time when we acknowledge His powerful presence in our lives.
#11—There’s Value in Positive Interactions with Others
“All positive interactions with other human beings involve, to some degree, the experience of visibility– that is, the experience of being seen and understood.”
It is important to encourage healthy interactions among peers…in the classroom, on the basketball court, and even through our technology screens. We all want our children to associate with kids who will have a positive influence on their lives, and obviously we want them to stay away from those who will do the opposite. Make an effort, to support their peer relationships by giving them unconditional love, time, boundaries, and encouragement to think for themselves. Above all, get to know their friends…what their interests are, where they live, etc. While you don’t have to stalk the families, casual conversations around the dining room table on a Sunday night may spark more insight.
No matter what kind of peer influence your teen faces, he or she must learn how to balance the value of going along with the crowd against the importance of making morally-based decisions.
When the only interactions for your teen come in the form of screen time through video games, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Youtube, your kids will never achieve the level of interaction necessary for real communication, connection, admiration, or respect. Encourage them to be involved in healthy extracurricular activities that give them a break from the fake realities society wants to sell them.
#12—Don’t Shy Away from Talking About Sexual Assault
“No” is a complete sentence.”
Raising Princes in a Pauper society (as I like to say) is no easy task, but should certainly be every parents’ goal. Bottom line, we need to be intentional in our parenting. While I want my message as a parent to inspire my boys to return God’s love with a lifestyle that loves Him, we have to invest the time and attention to model the right behaviors ourselves, so that we become the muse to instill that message. Let’s face it, none of us are perfect—despite the fact that you may try to convince the world otherwise on Facebook.
“Sex talks” are not nearly as important as crafting a lifestyle for our children that leads them naturally into making the right choices that produce good consequences. Just as we teach our children the importance of proper hygiene and how to brush their teeth, sexual health has to be part of an overall approach to wellness. One thing should always be crystal clear when talking about difficult subjects like sexual assault. We need to instill the message that it is never acceptable…ever…for one human to force his or her body on another human. Say it often…and then say it again.
#13—Suicide is the Second-Leading Cause of Death in Teens
“When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.”
Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among American teens ages 15-19. While suicide itself is not a mental disorder, it is a leading cause of death for people seriously affected by mental illness including Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse Disorders. When Hannah’s spirit becomes absolutely broken, she begins to embrace the emptiness of not feeling anything at all. While life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect, hope exists and it’s stronger than anything coming against you. Sadly, talking points on mental illness cannot cause someone to “snap out of it,” instead, it’s watching for indications of depression and hopelessness that can prompt medical treatment to restore one’s hopefulness of life.
The warranted controversy surrounding the suicide scene in the series was too painful to watch…and I closed my eyes for part of the scene. It was too real. But don’t we need people—maybe those who have become so desensitized by society’s temptations—to see and acknowledge the horror of taking your own life?
There is nothing…I repeat NOTHING glamorous about killing yourself. While there is much controversy over the thought that the show romanticizes suicide, personally, I didn’t walk away with that message. I wanted to. I wanted to be enraged by yet another senseless Hollywood drama instilling more notions of violence and hatred in our kids. Instead, I walked away with the simple fact that Jay Asher, author of the book leading up to this story writes:
We are all part of that everything and need to be accountable for the affects our interactions have on the everything we touch in our lives.
When our teens are equipped with the right tools, they can combine their gut instincts with some basic, but distinct warning signs to spot if a friend or school acquaintance may be at risk for suicidal or depressive thoughts:
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities
- Feeling trapped (like there is no way out)
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from family/friends/society
- Agitation or intense anxiety
- Dramatic mood changes
- No reasons for living/no sense of purpose in life
According to the American Association of Suicidology, a warning sign is the earliest detectable sign that indicates heightened risk for suicide in the near term (i.e., within minutes, hours, or days).
The Butterfly Effect…
conceptualizes the theory that even the most subtle and unobtrusive change effects other things, which build upon each other, and may eventually result in a massive change, which for some, would be quite unexpected or even tragic. In the fictional story of Hannah, the cumulative effect of the actions of others and her inaction to seek further help resulted in her tragically choosing hopelessness.
The Butterfly Effect is one of the most important reasons to believe that a single life can have a profound impact on the world. It’s really our call to action. 13 Reasons Why makes poignant points about what we owe one another as humans. Let’s make our daily actions and interactions become the Butterfly Effect for change by altering the tapestry of the world in a positive way.
Even the smallest step one takes in his/her life can change the course of said life immensely.