Justin Aaberg, 15 years old. Billy Lucas, also 15. Seth Walsh and Asher Brown, both 13 years old. Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University.
These are just a few of the many kids across our country who have killed themselves because they were tormented, bullied, outed or believed to be gay.
A new slogan has been gaining in popularity: It gets better. The idea behind these words is to let kids know there really is light at the end of the tunnel. I was bullied as a kid. It was impossible to see into a future where I could be accepted for who I was.
The "It gets better" message is important, but I confess it leaves me a little uneasy. It really does get better later, but what about right now? Am I really making a difference by changing my Facebook status or wearing purple for a day?
I got to thinking. Bullying doesn't happen in front of me, the adult. It happens in most cases at school. Then I realized, I've never had an in-depth conversation with my kids about bullying. Last week I did.
First, when you're talking to kids, remember sometimes they don't hear what you intend. I ask my kids all the time: Tell me what you heard me say using your own words.
Second, understand the dynamics of bullying before you talk. It's not just one kid being a jerk to another kid. Most accepted curricula say there are three components to almost every bullying situation: the bully, the victim and the silent bully.
The role of the bully and the victim speak for themselves, but it's the silent bully most kids need to understand, because in real life, that's the role they're most in danger of playing. The one who sees bullying, who knows about it, but says nothing, does nothing. What they don't realize is their silence only makes the bully grow stronger. Their silence also has a brutal impact on the victim.
When I talked to my kids I started by focusing on some of the kids who have already taken their lives. I explained kids have shot themselves, hanged themselves or jumped to their deaths to escape the pain and humiliation bullying caused.
I've got great, loving, kind kids. I don't think they would ever bully other kids or taunt them for their sexual orientation. My bottom line message was do not be the silent bully. If you hear a kid at school tell another he's a fag, don't be silent. Don't giggle or joke around. Find a teacher and tell them what happened right away. Do not contribute to the cycle.
They asked questions, talked about things they had seen and heard at school, and even went through a few potential scenarios and talked about what they would do. I don't expect my kids to be angels and I don't expect them to save the world-- But every child can be empowered to break the cycle of bullying if we give him or her the tools.
Without them, ultimately we adults are powerless to stop bullying of any kind, no matter how many encouraging videos we post online, or policies or laws we put in place.