“I have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” -James Baldwin
My Little Girl Doesn’t Really Want to Hang Herself, Right?
A friend of mine was tidying up her little girl’s bedroom when she noticed tiny pieces of paper torn and lying in a pile near the top of the trash can. Because she’s a mom who gives a damn, Erin took the time to piece the shredded paper together.
After nearly ten minutes, Erin almost regretted her decision.
Erin’s daughter, who is only nine-years-old, had drawn a self-portrait of herself, hanging from the ceiling, her lifeless body in a noose.
Go back and read that last sentence again.
A nine-year-old little girl drew a picture of her lifeless body, hanging from a rope. Rather than playing with dolls or watching cartoons on the iPad, a precious little girl was daydreaming of dying by suicide.
“Our job is not to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. Our job is to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” -L.R. Knost
I nearly died by suicide at the age of twenty-nine, but this little girl is in the fourth grade. A little white girl from suburban Middle America with access to just about anything a child with curly hair and dimpled cheeks could possibly want.
Just three weeks ago, her family returned home from a special birthday trip to Cinderella’s castle at Disney.
So, why did she draw it? Her mama asked the same question.
It turns out, this sweet little girl was being bullied at school.
Think it’s no big deal? I’ll raise you one higher: do you think it’s a big deal that my precious Caroline came home from school one day last year, upset because her pre-school classmates called her “chubby?” My daughter was only three.
“Children are mirrors, they reflect back to us all we say and do.” -Pam Leo
Our world is full of pain, that’s not a surprise to anyone reading this. What I’m learning, is that one of the most accurate ways to check the temperature of a nation is by looking at its children. I’m raising two of my own, and from the stories they bring home, it is more clear than ever that our world is full of fear and pain. The truth is, our children mirror the world around them.
If a child grows up in a world of loving kindness, where diversity is celebrated, and everyone is safe and welcome, they have a higher chance to repeat those healthy patterns. If a child grows up in a world filled with shaming behaviors, judgmental glances, and harsh criticism, they certainly have a greater chance at growing up to be a cold and calloused adult.
More often than not, our children become the people we shape them to be. Maybe that’s why Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”
Call me harsh, but why would we be shocked that Erin’s daughter drew a picture of herself, feet dangling above the ground, neck in a noose? As sad as it is, it makes perfect sense when you realize our children are growing up in a world where they witness bullying at the highest levels of government.
My own daughter lives in a world that idolizes photoshopped, plastic celebrities who do not reflect the real beauty of natural women. My son is being raised in a culture where might makes right, and if someone doesn’t look, dress, or sound like you - they must be the enemy.
“History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” -Nelson Mandela
Our children are being raised in a world where it is considered “normal” to have active shooter drills because the politicians their parents keep voting into office offer loads of lip service, but won’t vote to enact real gun control measures that count.
I’m not a politician or a parenting expert, but I am a pretty damn good dad. A dad who cares. A dad who has to brush his fear aside when he drops his son off at school some days.
Here’s what I know: the change is up to us.
The African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and it’s true. The responsibility lies in the hands of every man and woman who cares about the next generation. Healing our nation and shifting our dialogue begins at every dinner table from Birmingham to Bloomington.
Healing our children starts with the ways we interact with people around us, and in the words we use when we talk about ourselves. We cannot expect our children not to bully one another, or be surprised by their low self-esteem, when we slander our neighbors and hate ourselves.
The only way we will stop little girls from wanting to die after they get off the bus on Friday afternoons is by raising them in a world that empowers, encourages, and protects them. All of them.
If you want to live in a world where children don’t daydream of dying by suicide, join me in starting to create that reality today.
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
Pastors and Suicide: What You Need to Know
Pastors and Suicide: How Do We Keep this From Happening Again?
Podcast: When You Feel Like You Can’t Go On
Suicide Survivors: 7 Things to do the Day After You Leave the Psych Ward
This is Why It’s Our Fault When a Child Dies by Suicide
What You Should Know about “13 Reasons Why”
Suicide: Let’s Talk about It (podcast)
Living with Depression & Anxiety: 7 Coping Strategies that Work (e-book)