Perspective on Parenting: Teaching our children the sanctity of life and that words matter

Easter Sunday is without a doubt the most holy of days for Christians worldwide. I’m not a religion writer, nor is this an attempt to convince you to be a believer of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, despite my firm belief.

It is, however, a day in which so many of us celebrate everlasting life. With that in mind, I felt compelled to explain my concern for the present, immense disregard for human life, especially among young people.

In the wake of past tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook and the recent stabbing rampage at Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania, there’s obviously an inherent indifference for the sanctity of life among some teens and young adults. In light of such events, is there anything parents can do to help prevent mass murders and suicides?

Clearly people from all walks of life suffer from mental illness. There’s no shortage of violence in movies and video games, and many of those who’ve served our country in the military have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By now most of us understand the necessity of mental health screenings and counseling for soldiers suffering from PTSD. But what about teens who are irrationally pre-occupied with death?

Such teens are often the victims of bullying. If you’ve been out of high school for more than 10 years, things have definitely changed. Bullies are still around, and social cliques continue to devise ways of making others feel like outcasts. Yet these perpetrators are now fueled by electronic tools -- e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, social media and texting -- giving bullies the ability to use words like “go kill yourself” with reckless abandon. Cyber bullies can harm their victims at any hour of the day, on any day of the week.

You may have heard about Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla., who committed suicide last September by plunging 60-feet at a cement plant, all after bullies told her to kill herself. She was just 12.

A few years ago, I attended a funeral for a bright young man who chose to end his life just days prior to his 16th birthday. His younger sister had baby sat my children. As a mom to much younger children than he was, I couldn’t imagine the path that would lead to such a final decision. Of course, nobody will ever really know the reasons why someone chooses to end his life. He, too, may have repeatedly heard those same words uttered so callously that drove Rebecca to suicide.

Talking to two fellow mothers recently, I learned how common and close to home this nasty catchphrase has become. One mom is a dear friend, with two teenaged daughters who are excellent students, popular at school and pretty. Yet she confided in me that both her daughters are fixated on wanting to die, an emotion that’s been driven by repeatedly being told by others: “go kill yourself.”

The other mother is a licensed social worker who advises children and teens in her private practice. She agrees that these words are as common place as: “how’s the weather?” Young people, whether they consider the impact or not, are using these words as weapons to belittle and break down the spirits of their peers.

As parents, even if it seems like a nimble attempt at preventing such tragedies, we need to teach our children to choose their words more carefully. Grab their faces gently, hold them close, look them in the eyes, and tell them their lives are precious and meaningful. Remind them that the lives of those around them are equally as valuable. Be present for them, and keep this conversation alive.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ranks suicide as the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, based on its 2010 figures. According to stopbullying.gov, as many as one in three students in the United States say they have been bullied.

Julia Sherwin is a mother of three, a former newspaper reporter, college journalism instructor and fitness enthusiast. She and her family live in West Brandywine. E-mail her at jsherwin73@gmail.com, Facebook: www.facebook.com/perspectiveonparenting or Twitter @JuliaSherwinPoP.