13-Year-Old's Suicide Should Make You Fear You're Raising a Bully (Yes, You)

Danny Fitzpatrick

As the mother of a 13-year-old boy whose journey through middle school has been rocky, I was devastated to hear the news about Danny Fitzpatrick, the young teen from Staten Island who hanged himself at home this weekend. And I have to ask my fellow parents -- what are we going to do about this?

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"At just 13 years old, he took his own life because of the [toll that] years of bullying took on his otherwise happy, caring and loving spirit," explains Danny's sister, Eileen, on the family's GoFundMe page.

Social media is afire with outraged reactions, many from parents and former bullying victims. They blame the teachers at Danny's Catholic school who reportedly ignored his pleas for help; school officials, whose idea of helping was allegedly to send social services to the Fitzpatrick home; the parents of the bullies, who have yet to offer public sympathy or apologies; and the bullies themselves, who tormented Danny for "his weight, his grades and his innocent heart," according to the New York Daily News. Some commenters even suggest that Danny didn't do enough to help himself, despite the fact that he reported the abuse repeatedly and even fought with one of his tormentors -- earning a fractured pinkie and a reprimand from the school for his trouble.

More from CafeMom: 'Girls Are So Mean to Me' -- My 3-Year-Old Learned About Bullying at Preschool

We moms live in fear that our children might become a target, especially if they fall into one of the higher-risk groups (according to stopbullying.gov, those include being gay or lesbian, being perceived as weak, being unpopular, suffering from anxiety or depression, or, of course, looking or acting "different"). We pray that our children will come to us for help if their anguish is leading them to contemplate taking their own lives. But we tend to worry less about our kids being the bullies themselves.

Not my child! we say. My son would never treat someone that way. We're raising our daughters right.

But here's the thing … maybe we're not.

Children aren't born bullies. They don't spontaneously pick on people for no reason. They don't come into the world believing that the only individuals of worth are those who look and act like themselves. As the song from South Pacific goes, they've "got to be carefully taught." And while we may think of ourselves as open-minded and compassionate, there are little things we do -- often without even thinking -- that help to keep the bully culture alive and well.

We say: It's not okay to tease someone about their weight. But our kids see us posting those videos of obese Walmart shoppers just for a quick laugh. We watch movies where the overweight characters are the target of fat jokes. And we pat our less-than-taut bellies in front of our daughters and sigh, "No bikini for me this year," which sends the message: Only skinny girls deserve to wear what they want.

We say: It's wrong to bully someone because of their sexual orientation. But we avoid having an honest talk with our kids about the topic because it makes us uncomfortable (and, perhaps, we secretly fear hearing something we're not ready to hear). Our kids hear us saying, "That's so gay!" and assume it's an acceptable insult. We may even teach our children that homosexuality or gay marriage is morally wrong, without stressing that we have our own moral responsibility to love our neighbor -- and to step in when we witness cruelty. 

We say: You should never make fun of someone with a disability. Then we yell an impulsive "Retard!" at the driver who cuts in front of us. We avoid the gaze of the woman in a wheelchair. We make snarky remarks within earshot of the mom whose child is having a shrieking meltdown at Applebee's ("Some people don't know how to control their children"), blithely ignorant of the fact that the child has sensory processing issues and got overwhelmed by the tray of dishes the server dropped, and by the mashed potatoes that were too lumpy.

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We say: We don't allow hate speech in our house. But we turn on the news and political coverage when the kids are in the room, where they hear grown-ups yell and name-call with no shame or apology. Maybe we even let slip a choice word or two for the newsmakers. And while we might never use the most forbidden epithets, we may still use code words in front of our children -- those people, thugs, savages, illegals -- or make thinly veiled references to "neighborhoods changing" and "the world becoming more dangerous." We turn on the car radio on the way to school and listen to morning hosts poking fun at celebrities for their looks, clothes, and relationships.

We brag: Of course we honor diversity in our house. Then we feed our kids a steady diet of TV shows and movies where the stars are conventionally beautiful, thin, and white, while their costars are the overweight comic-relief best friend (again!), the sassy African-American friend, the smart, competitive Asian friend, the nerdy, awkward Jewish friend. Even the newest Disney princess, the Latina Elena, is still a Barbie-proportioned, ballgown-wearing glam queen.

We say: Bullying is wrong. If you see it, let someone know. But when an uncle makes a "fag" joke or rants about "rag heads" at the family Labor Day barbecue, we stay quiet ... why spoil the party? We walk in the other direction at the mall when we see a guy screaming and raising his fist at his girlfriend, because we don't want to get involved. We see the despicable tweets about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, bashed for everything from her hairstyle to her "unpatriotic" attitude (there's no law about putting your hand over your heart during the national anthem, folks!), and we keep scrolling down -- or worse, tweet an agreement -- instead of using it as a teachable moment for our kids about cyberbullying.

More from CafeMom: Gabby Douglas Was Bullied at the Olympics & She's Handled It Like a Champ

Worst of all, we may close our eyes to the signs that our children may be at risk for bullying someone: talking trash about less-popular classmates, blaming others for their own problems, a "not my responsibility" attitude, hanging with the mean girls.

So yes, let's mourn the loss of Danny, the sweet soul who felt he had no other options. Let's hold our children a little bit tighter today. But let's not point our fingers at others without giving some thought to the four fingers pointing back at ourselves.

Let's use this tragedy to help end our unwitting part in the bully culture. If not us, then who?

 

 

Image via Eileen Fitzpatrick/gofundme.com

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