I realize blogging loses its power when I only do it sporadically, but I must confess that there has just been a lot of life going on lately and I have lost the focus to sit down and write, even on a weekly basis. I journal every night, but even that seems like a chore sometimes. I enjoy writing, though, because words carry so much more than vowels and consonants. They hurt and harm, heal and destroy. And today there are a lot of words flowing through my mind.
Tim and I were able to get away for a long weekend in hopes of resting and recuperating from what has been a very lengthy life season of stress and strain. We were looking forward to a few days spent sleeping in and sunning near a big pool. What we got, however, was three and a half days filled with A LOT of rain. We had a beautiful view of the storms, though, so we spent most of our time sleeping, talking, relaxing, and we ended up binge watching the second season of 13 Reasons Why.
Now, to some of you, that may sound like masochism or, at least, insanity. The first season of the show caused so much controversy and many questioned whether it should even be allowed to return. I don’t know what I would have thought about the show had I been a teenager when it was released, but I was a bucket of mixed emotions after seeing it as an adult. Tim and I were so fascinated by it that we hunkered down to see what would happen in season two.
If you aren’t familiar with the show, here is a terribly brief summary: A teenage girl commits suicide but before she does, she records 13 tapes which are distributed to the 13 people to whom the tapes are addressed after the girl’s death. These tapes cause an uproar in the girl’s school and friend circle, and eventually drive her mother mad as everyone tries to figure out what the hell happened, who is on these tapes, and if the stories are true. The allegations on the tapes range from bullying to serial rapes, and eventually the school administration is blamed for not taking action on the school’s bullying and sexual harassment problem.
While season one seems to focus on how inept adults are and how horrible teenagers can be, season two gives a little more credit to the parents and focuses on the consequences of all of the actions shown in season one. Season two also takes a broader look into other issues such as substance abuse and addiction, gun violence, and mental health issues among teens.
I tried to watch this show from several different perspectives. As a woman, I thought the writers did an amazing job of shedding light on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse without painting all men as demonic predators. There are just as many (if not more) kind, compassionate, and respectful men – both young and old – on the show as there are sociopathic creeps. As a non-parent, I tried to watch this show as if I were a parent. Watching the show together lead Tim and I to have many conversations about what we went through as teenagers, how we would want to respond as parents, and what we hope for our future children as they face a really frightening world.
I also had to watch the show through the lens of a mental health professional. While I don’t advocate the graphic nature of the show (one season in episode 13 had me so upset I almost threw up and I had to look away for quite some time), I can tell you this: your kids are already exposed to all of these things. 13 Reasons Why doesn’t address anything that isn’t already happening in schools on a daily basis. And the show writes teenagers well. No matter how many times we, as adults, say “You know you can always come talk to me…”, teenagers don’t know that. None of us develops abstract reasoning until our mid to late teen years. Abstract reasoning, or conceptual reasoning, refers to the ability to analyze information, detect patterns and relationships, and solve problems on a complex, intangible level. This includes being able to formulate theories about the nature of objects and ideas. Most teenagers don’t yet have the ability to say, “If I do this, then the following things will happen” because their brains have not yet fully developed.
So does that mean teenagers are not to be held responsible for their actions? Not at all. It means that parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, educators, administrators, officers of the law, and mentors carry the burden of having really important conversations, even when those conversations are really, really uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many times a teenager has sat in front of me in the counseling office, their parent sitting out in the waiting room, and told me they have no one to talk to about what is happening in his or her life. Their parent or parents may be the nicest people in the world, but the teen doesn’t trust them because they don’t know if they can. A teenager’s trust is hard to earn and even harder to keep. Just like infants, they are not resilient. They are sponges. And they are soaking up every word and action that is being lived out in front of them.
If Tim and I have a daughter one day, and we tell her that she can come and talk to us about anything, but then she sees or hears me mocking Tim or berating him over something silly he did, our daughter will not trust me. If I tell our daughter that she should love her body, but I degrade and hate my own, she won’t trust me. If Tim were to tell our daughter that she needs to always tell the truth, but then she hears him telling a white lie to a family member, she won’t trust him. It doesn’t matter what we TELL her. It matters what we SHOW and LIVE in front of her.
Parents are not the cause of most teenager’s poor choices, but they sure as hell can be a major part of either prevention or the solution moving forward. I don’t blame parents. I recognize that parents carry the burden and the responsibility of raising children who will also be parents one day. I believe that we, as adults, all carry the burden of nurturing the children and teens who are around us in our daily lives.
Right or wrongly portrayed, the entire message behind 13 Reasons Why is simply this: start talking. Talk to kids about sex and guns and rape and drugs and blow jobs and bad grades and bullying and suicide and alcohol and kissing and grinding and cheating and lying and stealing and backstabbing and cigarettes. Tell them your story. Let them know what you went through and how that impacted you. Does that feel terrifying? As adults, we need to be owning our own stories and doing our own work so that we aren’t afraid to talk to kids about what is happening in their lives. They don’t need to know everything, but they need to know enough to know that their parents are human, and that their parents love them no matter what.
Parents, talk to teachers. And vice versa. And talk honestly. Shame is the devil’s playground. Shame doesn’t work, in fact it makes things a whole lot worse. Teenagers need a support team, and not one made of just other teenagers. A group of teenagers is generally going to come to the same irrational conclusion because they are operating on limited information. Their brains and bodies are still developing. They don’t yet have all of the tools necessary to make informed decisions.
The second season of 13 Reasons Why is going to make a lot of people angry, and I get that. I don’t have kids yet, so I can’t tell you whether I would let mine watch the show or not. They probably would anyway, so I would at least sit down and watch it with them if they wanted to see it. Then we could have some conversations. Those conversations would be terribly uncomfortable for all parties involved, but discomfort far outweighs the consequences of being silent in a child’s life.
Maybe “talking about things” wasn’t the way of our parents our their parents, but that needs to change and it is changing. I don’t want my future children to suffer alone because I feel too embarrassed to say hard things. I am sure I will fail at this over and over as a parent, but I want to do the best I can with the tools and resources I have. We don’t have to say the right thing. We just need to start saying something.