By Karen Johnson of The 21st Century SAHM
A family in Soak Creek, West Virginia has endured the ultimate heartbreak. Jackson Grubb, a third-grader, took his own life on September 10. Third grade. Let that sink in. In his fourth year of elementary school, this boy made the decision to hang himself in his own home rather than face another day of pain. At nine years old.
When you think of nine-year-old boys, what do you think of? My son is about to turn eight, so I have some idea of what boys around this age are like. Minecraft, Legos, baseball, soccer, football. And probably more Minecraft. I think of long gangly legs, running shorts, feet that seem to grow a size every day, and messy hair. I think of endless snacking, wrestling, and stinky socks.
I do not think of suicide when I think of a nine-year-old boy. Do you? Probably not.
What possibly could have led this boy, a boy who should be riding bikes after school and thinking about his next Halloween costume, to do such a drastic thing? To make such an adult decision? To create a noose and willingly hang his small body from it, ending his short life?
His family is blaming bullying, saying that his peers had been targeting Jackson at school, although the school has no reports of this. With such vague details, it’s possible we won’t ever know the full truth behind this tragedy.
But here’s what we do know. Something was so terribly wrong in this child’s world, in his mind, that he felt unable to wake up and live another day. We know bullying is an issue—from young children through adulthood. We know poor mental health is a crisis that often goes undetected and untreated. And we know that far too many suffer to the point of choosing suicide. But now children as young as nine are falling victim to circumstances leading to this result.
Of course society will now search for culprits—who can we blame? The alleged bullies? The parents of the bullies? Jackson’s parents? The school administration? Surely we need to find someone to hold accountable. And maybe that will help us feel better. But nothing will bring this sweet boy back.
I can’t speak to the proper course of action. I don’t know the facts, nor should I. Because frankly, it’s not my business to know the truth. Maybe it’s appropriate to charge the adults in Jackson’s life for failing to properly care for him. Maybe it’s fitting to punish the children accused of mistreating him. I think we should leave those decisions to the family, school, and law enforcement of Soak Creek, West Virginia.
But here’s what we should do. Talk to our kids. I need to repeat that. We have to talk to our kids. And I don’t mean a 30-second, “How was your day?” chat as you shuffle them from school to piano lessons. I mean real, brutally honest conversations. We need to find quiet moments, free from distractions—no TV, no iPad, no video games—to ask our kids some questions.
What are your friends’ names? Why do you like these friends?
Are there any kids who don’t have friends? Why do you think that is?
Is there a way you could invite that boy without friends to play with you today?
Have you seen anyone be unkind at school? What did you do?
Do you know what a bully is? What does a bully act like?
I know how busy you are—with science projects, grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, soccer practice, a leaky roof, and a dog that needs to be walked. I know how easy it is to let days pass by, assuming all is well in your child’s world. But we cannot afford to ignore this crisis.
I also know it can be scary for kids to stand up to a bully. Hell, most adults don’t have the guts to do it. We cannot exactly throw a few suggestive phrases at our kids and send them off, hoping they will spread rainbows and butterflies through the halls at school. We need to arm them with tools, with resources, that will give them the confidence to stand up to bullying.
*Talk to your kids about reaching out to a child who is alone. Hey, what’s your name? Want to play with me? is a good start. Then, follow up with your child. How did it go? How did he/she respond?
*Teach your kids to reach out to teachers or principals. Many schools also have a proactive counselor who works with students on friendship, kindness, and bullying prevention. If your kids see something, encourage them to talk to someone about it.
Imagine how differently Jackson’s life might have turned out if another child connected with him, or if he had a friend. It is imperative — it is our job as parents to teach our kids to do the right thing. Passively standing by in the face of suffering is not acceptable. We need to teach our kids: If you see something, say something and do something.
As parents, we can’t imagine losing our children the way Jackson’s family lost him. It’s our greatest fear. But raising bullies should also be something we fear—and something we prevent.