Author note: I realize I am a little bit late to the party with this post. By this time, the show is old news. I am still troubled by some of the responses from parents.
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You get a call from your child’s summer camp. Your child is talking about hurting themselves, because a dominant personality in another camper reminds her of someone responsible for profound emotional and psychological trauma.
Your child is having such a tough time at a new school with social dynamics that you find it best to have her transfer schools.
Your child has personally witnessed a suicide attempt. Your child has an estranged biological parent with serious mental health issues or addiction (or both).
Your child has a serious PTSD diagnosis and is continuously in therapy.
Whether, G-d forbid, or not you and your children have had any of these experiences, 13 Reasons Why is a good show to watch with your teenager, for all the compromises it asks us as viewers to make.
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I found watching 13 Reasons Why with my child to be one of the most productive and instructive viewing experiences in some time.
The graphic content was the subject of much criticism, including from my wife. For my part, however, the cat is out of the bag with the nature of teenage sexuality. I think it was very helpful for my child to see what rape might look like. It wasn’t explicit, but it was enough that she can know what is going on. But more importantly, as people focus on the rapes themselves in the show, I’m looking at the two instances where the absence of consent was presented in even more vivid detail. Inebriation means she cannot give consent. Presence is not implied consent. No means no. Our kids often see the same softcore sex in primetime commercials. Let’s focus on how ugly it is, from the absence of consent to the brutal aftermath.
With the graphic depiction of suicide, I think this was important. It’s painful. It’s demeaning. We live in a culture that increasingly romanticizes the choice to commit suicide in times of turmoil, that we forget that the majority of teen suicides use painful means rather than convenient, Quietus-like drug cocktails. Hannah Baker was in such emotional pain that she pushed herself through the biting pain of slitting her wrists. It hurt her, and the reaction of her parents was so honest and raw when they found her.
For me, with everything that my daughter has been through, it is a reminder that as an adult 30-plus years removed from her immediate experiences, I don’t have the answers I think I do for her present dilemma.
It would have been too easy to view the series from the perspective of an adult, which is unhelpful. This horrid article from an incredibly out-of-touch mother is a perfect example of what happens when you don’t yield to the significant point of the narrative’s focus. If her intention was to ironically ape the rote reaction of the useless school guidance counselor, mission complete.
Life is full of pain and brokenness. But it also can be filled with wonder and joy and strength. Today might suck; tomorrow could be better. Or the day after. If you can’t believe in that possibility anymore, tell someone you need help, in those words.
Really? I got the same thing from every single after school special 30 years ago. Congratulations on both missing the point and providing the exact kind of unhelpful axiomatic nincompoopery that people spoon out to every teen in crisis!
Sprinkle this kind of bullshit salve on the wounds to your child’s psyche like jimmies on ice cream, by all means. Lace it with your “been there, done that” condescension, and get back to me on its success. I will not hold my breath. Good heavens…think!
13 Reasons Why encouraged me to go deeper with my child. We, and our children, are so oversaturated with words, words, words, that they lose their meaning.
I gave my daughter every self-worth lecture and every painfully exhausted cliche about life’s ups and downs, and it didn’t end her goddamn torment.
Because telling your child to believe in possibility doesn’t do a thing when their self-worth has already sustained serious damage from a failed parent.
Because telling your child to believe in possibility doesn’t do a thing when their self-worth is savaged by their peers day after fucking day.
Because telling your child to believe in possibility because your abstruse savior loves them doesn’t do a thing when they are humiliated on social media.
Because telling your child that other brains are more developed than theirs will INSTANTLY drive them to outsource their critical emotional thinking!
To borrow from George R. R. Martin’s writings, “words are wind.”
Children, especially teenagers, are in an incredibly self-focused age. As we age out of it, we tend to relate back to those years by calling the current generation of youth “soft” or “broken,” without realizing we were once incredibly self-centered at that age. The self-consciousness Copernicus hits us all—hopefully—at some point, and we generally romanticize our memories through the lens of adulthood.
So you can tell a child that they don’t have it all figured out until you are blue in the face, but they aren’t going to hear you now, or ever, except in Latter Day Saint circles.
13 Reasons Why prompted a dialog that confirmed my suspicions that parenting cannot be passive. Sorry, but doling out your sage advice is passive parenting. When my child was being tormented, we set up a meeting with the school. When it continued, we set up another meeting. And when that didn’t work, we demanded that she change schools.
Instead of telling your children 13 pieces of useless drivel, I suggest you use 13 Reasons Why to ask your kids some questions.
Do you feel like we don’t understand what’s going on in your life, even if you told us? Do you feel like we have any capacity to actually help you?
I suspect Hannah Baker’s parents would have doubled down on the “you have so much worth” concept. They, like so many parents of suicide victims, likely never failed to communicate their child’s worth. But again, if depression or other mental health issues are a factor, their self-value equations are already going to be in a state of disrepair. Their algorithm is not going to include your exhortations about their worth. We don’t determine their variables, no matter how many things we tell them they should know.
My takeaway from this incredibly well-written, well-acted show was that as parents, we need to demonstrate their worth. If your child is exhibiting any signs of angst, and they are reluctant to tell you, demand that they clue you in. Restrict their exposure to circumstances if they are reluctant to talk, so you can by process of elimination figure out where their pain points are. If they express concern that these things are hurting them, don’t tell them Jesus loves them and send them on their merry way.
GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE SCHOOL.
PROTECT YOUR CHILD.
Do you know kids like Hannah Baker?
We tend to project our kids onto Hannah Baker, but our kids are statistically more likely to be the kids that were fodder for her tapes. If you’re so focused on preventing suicide that you’re not thinking that they might be the Alex, Jessica, or the, G-d forbid, Bryce character, you’re not doing suicide prevention any favors.
The show does a great job, perhaps a bit too good of a job, of highlighting youthful complicity in the humiliation and degradation of other teens. While I think Hannah’s j’accuse was, in most cases, bullshit, perhaps necessary as a narrative vehicle, the reality is, negative social interactions, both deliberate and inadvertent, are absolutely factors when a child starts down the path of ideation.
If your kid says they do indeed know a Hannah Baker, then you can be proactive and do your fellow parents a solid by getting on the horn with them and the school and alerting them to possibilities they may be, like you, blissfully unaware of. They may be taking the horrid advice from the article I linked above and telling a child that they have worth and adults can co-opt some of their thinking for them, and missing the cues in their kid’s life.
But I’d want to know, and so would you.
Do you feel like your school takes suicide prevention seriously? Do you feel like there is a protected class of students, i.e. the jocks? Can you go to school events without worrying about being bullied by some quadrant within your school’s social hierarchies?
In the case of my daughter’s first experience with school when moving to Maine, she readily identified with specific examples of the somewhat beleaguered administration when it came to handling “problem students.” And when she came home with a specific instance of bullying, including a threat on her life (perhaps joking, but I don’t take anything lightly). I took it to the administration, the response was, “but that student isn’t a problem student,” as if keeping assholery below deck and off disciplinary radar obviates the possibility that a student is a bully!
Mind you, this occurred prior to 13 Reasons Why. When administrations are reluctant to act because of the absence of academic or disciplinary issues on the part of someone who is accused of something, it puts a dent in the self-worth of the reporting student. If as an adult, I am receiving this response, imagine what the children hear in response to their grievances or concerns.
If you feel an urge to issue what you believe to be pithy, but ultimately useless, pearls of wisdom in the wake of watching 13 Reasons Why, my sense is that you are doing this parenting thing incorrectly.
The show touched on a compelling set of truths. We are all too complacent and given to torpor when we have even an inkling that something is amiss in the lives of our children. This is true of professionals and parents; our children, and their peers. For the sake of our own comfort, we will seek to as softly as possible disqualify as many of our children’s concerns as we can, to the point where we can and will trivialize the extent of suffering.
The pivotal scene that demonstrates just how much the reaction in the linked article misses the point is the post-rape interaction Hannah Baker has with her guidance counselor. He commits the sin of dismissal and poorly constructed advice. More words about self-worth, moving on—we’re here for you, but not really.
It’s not the time to tell kids anything after watching that show. It’s the time to ask.
Get it right.