<i>Free to Be</i>... Not Anymore

For all the walls we thought we'd broken down with-- and all the stereotypes we thought we'd shattered -- children today are not free to be anything they want to be, and they are dying for it.
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Just how many dead teenagers, driven to end their own lives, is it going to take for adults to stand up and say, What the hell is going on? There was a time when the words "Free to Be" embodied a hope that whatever a kid was, was good enough. But "freedom" doesn't describe the world of this generation. Or of their parents. One of those parents wrote to me on my Facebook page.

"Hi, Marlo," wrote Kevin Jacobsen of New York. "Our son Kameron was bullied relentlessly and committed suicide on January 18th. He was 14. In lieu of flowers, we asked for donations to go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, my mom's favorite for decades. I know you're busy, but just wondering if you could take a look at our son. We have nothing else to lose."

He then posted the link to a website he'd built to honor his son, called KindnessAboveMalice.org. I logged on, but could barely look at the child's face. He was beautiful.

Thirty-seven years -- and two generations of children -- after the creation of Free to Be... You and Me, I can't help but remember the beautiful words lyricist Bruce Hart wrote that anchored the opening anthem:

"Every boy in this land grows to be his own man,

In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman."

Kameron will never grow to be his own man.

For all the walls we thought we'd broken down with Free to Be -- and all the stereotypes we thought we'd shattered -- children today are not free to be anything they want to be, nor anything they are, and they are dying for it. And no beautiful lyric can fix that.

According to current statistics, one out of every four teenagers across America is bullied in their neighborhoods and schools; 160,000 students stay home from school every day because of their fear of being bullied; and each month, nearly 300,000 students are physically attacked inside their secondary schools.

Online, things are even worse: 43 percent of kids are cyber-bullied, while 53 percent admit to having said something mean and hurtful to another kid online.

Then came that tragic September -- 2010 -- when over a period of just three weeks, nine gay or questioning youths -- all male, average age 15 -- were "bullied to death," committing suicide, no longer able to endure the never-ending harassment from their peers.

Like many people, much of what I know about bullying is what I read in the headlines: 15-year-old Irish migrant Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, hangs herself in the stairwell of her family apartment, after yet another day of relentless bullying. The harassment continued on her Facebook memorial page. Or just this month, 14-year-old Ambriel Bowen of York, Pennsylvania, commits suicide at home when the daily terrorizing by bullies -- which included two black eyes and a broken nose -- becomes too overwhelming to bear.

Reading the horrid accounts of bullied kids is devastating. But hearing the voice of a bereaved father brings tears to your eyes

I called Kevin Jacobsen after I read his Facebook post and my heart broke as he recounted his son's tragic story.

"Bullying is not the same old issue it used to be," Kevin said, softly. "With cell phones and social networking, it's turned into an around-the-clock problem that our kids cannot escape from. And the other thing that's different is that the bullies can be anonymous. And without that face-to-face encounter, it's impossible to stop them."

When I hung up with Kevin, I re-read his post, and seeing his mention of St. Jude made me think about how different the children are there. I've seen compassion, not cruelty, for each other. I've seen four- and five-year-old girls and boys offering hugs and giving comfort to two- and three-year-olds, telling them that they understand the pain they're going through, and that they will be alright.

So the idea that healthy children should die, not from an errant cancer cell, but because of the abject malice of another child, is something we need to take on. And stop.

Kevin Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Education, told me that most parents of bullied children have no idea about the anguish their sons and daughters are enduring, because the kids aren't talking. They're ashamed to admit it, because they think it's a sign of weakness, and they want to handle it themselves.

But if more parents would get into the game, Jennings said, we might be able to turn things around. He told me that the majority of parents haven't been trained to look for signs of bullying in their child's life. But they need to. And they can start by asking themselves a few questions:

  • Does your child not want to ride the school bus any more?
  • Does your child often wake in the morning complaining about stomach aches and asking to stay home from school?
  • Are your child's friends not coming around so much any more?
  • Has your child stopped receiving invitations to parties?

Most important, said Jennings, is if you suspect your child is being bullied, you must become proactive, and try to get that child to talk.

And I think we all have to start to talk.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years about tackling problems, it's that the first thing you need to do is spark the conversation. So let's start talking about bullying. With our neighbors. With our friends and family. With fellow parents at PTA meetings. And with each other -- right here. Let me hear what you think. It's time to take bullying down.

In the meantime, if you're worried that a child in your life might be a victim -- or is, in fact, the bully -- there are some helpful thoughts at such websites as stopbullying.gov. I'm sure there are countless other sites, and I'd like to know about those, as well. We don't have the time -- or any more kids' lives -- to waste.

It's been nearly four decades since the debut of the Free to Be message. But I 'm hopeful that, together, we can realize that place that Bruce Hart imagined where:

"Every boy in this land grows to be his own man,

In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman."

A land where the children are free... from bullying.

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