Teenage suicide should never be romanticized.
There is a lot of buzz that Netflix’s new series 13 Reasons Why does just that.
I disagree. I watched it over the last week, and I have rarely seen a show that so captures the complexities and grittiness of teenage life, and does so while portraying absolute truth. Instead of glorifying teenage suicide, it shows how it is a waste, and how utterly preventable it usually is.
I don’t believe everyone should watch the show. Many teens are just too young to handle it. Young people who are unstable emotionally should likely steer clear. This is definitely a “parental advisory recommended” show. I certainly skipped the actual suicide scene (I can only take so much). But here’s what I believe when it comes to film and TV shows: biblical world view matters.
And what is a biblical world view when it comes to media? It’s a show that portrays the world as it is, with a moral framework that is in line with God’s view. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is necessarily preached, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the characters are perfect or even believe in God. It simply portrays truth, with grace and love winning, and evil and pettiness losing.
And 13 Reasons Why does that, in spades.
I’ve written before about how I feel about biblical world view and movies after I was criticized for writing a post on how much I liked the movie The King’s Speech, since The King’s Speech had profanity in it. I understand that some people want to stay away from films containing questionable material. But I think, in so doing, we may be missing some great opportunities to understand the world teens inhabit, and to open up conversations with them.
In October, my daughter Rebecca’s book Why I Didn’t Rebel will be out, and Thomas Nelson (her publisher) thinks it will be one of their big books in the fall. One of her main points is that if you want to raise kids to follow God, you need an open and authentic relationship with them. If parents don’t understand what’s going on in teen’s lives, that’s so much harder to get.
Look, this show has a LOT of swearing. Way too much for my taste. The kids all drink. There’s definitely teenage sexual activity going on, including same-sex activity (although they don’t glorify it). There are drugs and tarot cards and assault. But, according to my own girls, that is simply what happens–even in Christian high schools (some of the biggest parties with alcohol in our town were with Christian high school kids). And the underlying message in the miniseries is quite profound–and it offers up great opportunities for discussion.
So today I want to share with you 10 important lessons from 13 Reasons Why–and give you some discussion questions you can use if you watch it with your teens.
It’s going to be a bit of a different post, and if you have no interest in the series, I hope you’ll forgive me. But I think it’s an important enough phenomenon among high schoolers at the moment that it’s worth talking about and trying to steer the conversation in a helpful direction.
But first, a synopsis:
13 Reasons Why centers on Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old girl who commits suicide. Before she does, though, she records 13 cassette tapes explaining 13 reasons why she kills herself–which boil down to 13 individuals and what they did to her. One of those individuals is Clay, the focus of the series as he tries to come to terms with what caused Hannah’s death. He’s a broken hearted, lost boy who was secretly in love with Hannah. And as each of those 13 individuals comes to grips with their roles in Hannah’s death, we learn so much about relationships and grace.
The show works because it isn’t one-dimensional. It’s not like Hannah was the typical bullied girl, and everyone else was completely at fault. Hannah sabotaged herself. Hannah misjudged other people’s motives. Hannah missed opportunities to connect with people. And other people chose to do stupid things for often very understandable reasons (and some just plain bad reasons).
It’s just a mess of mistakes that, unless we understand the lessons behind it, too many teenagers and adults will make. So I want to share what I took away from the series, and then provide you with a downloadable list of discussion starters you can use with your older teens if they watch the show.
13 Reasons Why‘s Lessons for Parents
1. Love Cannot Overcome Lack of Time
With very few exceptions, every single one of the adults in 13 Reasons Why truly loved the kids and wanted the best for them. They were just completely clueless about what was going on in their kids’ lives.
Clay’s parents tried to talk to him, and even implemented “family breakfasts” since they never seemed to all be home at dinner time. Jessica’s parents did the “family dinners”, but still didn’t know what was happening with her. And Alex’s parents worked opposite shifts so they were never home, though Alex’s father made great meals and gave him good pep talks.
All of the parents spent a lot of time at work, and these kids spent the majority of their time on their own, with friends, or in their rooms. Eating was the only thing everybody did together. There were no family activities. There was no history of sharing things. So when things started to go wrong and parents started to panic and try to get their kids to open up, they hit a brick wall.
The lesson? You may love your kids a ton, but they won’t open up unless they have a pre-existing authentic, safe relationship with you, and that can only be built with tons of time spent together–not just eating (though that’s important). These kids had no experience with family bonding or fun with their parents, so their parents were not who they naturally turned to when things got rough.
2. High School is a Toxic Environment
Everyone is bullied–even many of the people doing the bullying. Everyone is scared. And kids are simply cruel.
Personally, I’m glad my girls didn’t go to high school (we homeschooled all the way through). They still had an active social life, and they still had friends. But they were out of that environment, and if you have the ability to give kids a different experience, I highly recommend it.
High school forces kids to hang out with the same people every day, even after those kids have humiliated you or hurt you. There’s no escape. As adults, we’d never put up with that. But kids are trapped. And they’re all going through raging hormones and changes at the same time, so it’s a toxic mess.
And please–steer clear of high school parties. Any party without adult supervision (or with minimal adult supervision) will end up being an alcohol infused mess. There is NEVER a reason for a teen to go to a high school party like that. Ever. Stand your ground.
One other big message: be very careful of forcing a high school kid to start at a new school. Hannah was a new student, and that led to many of her problems. Clay was an outcast, too, but he had grown up in the community and he had managed to build an identity for himself and others left him alone. As the new kid on the block, Hannah didn’t have that luxury. My assistant Tammy had to move for her husband’s work in her daughter’s last year of high school. She has repeatedly said that if she could do it again, she would have stayed behind for a year rather than making her daughter switch schools in senior year.
3. Kids Are Exposed to More than We Think
We may want to rail against teenage alcohol use and protect our kids from finding out about drugs or porn or sex, but even if our kids steer clear themselves, many, many of their friends will not, even in Christian schools. And so our kids need to know both how to say no and how to help friends who are in too deep. And they won’t know this unless we can talk to them about it and acknowledge that this stuff goes on.
There’s another aspect to this–in the whole series, kids were trying to act like adults when they weren’t. Clay beats himself up for not telling Hannah that he loved her. But why didn’t he? Because he was just a kid, and he had no idea how to handle these feelings. It took him ages to even get up the courage to kiss her. That’s how it is when you’re 17.
Our kids have adult bodies. They are in adult situations. But they are supremely ill-equipped to handle them because it’s all new. Most kids are not naive. They’re dealing with real things that we deal with all the time. The only difference is that they have no experience in doing so.
One more thing–Zach let Hannah down by pulling a petty prank on her. And yet if you follow Zack throughout the show, you see a very decent guy who was in over his head. He tried to help Hannah after Marcus insulted her. He truly liked Hannah and asked her out, but in her pain Hannah couldn’t see Zach’s heart. And Zach truly didn’t like the jocks he was with on the basketball team. Yet Zack was simply not mature enough to handle Hannah’s pain. And later, when both Justin and Alex reached out to Zack (because he was the only together one in the group), Zack pulled away, to disastrous consequences.
Zach wasn’t bad. He was simply young. And he was put in an adult situation because no adults were stepping up. Of all the people depicted, he will likely be haunted the most in future years. And yet he should never have been in that situation in the first place, because he was simply too young to deal with everyone else’s pain. Many of our kids are in the same situation. They’re carrying their friends’ pain and they can’t handle it. We need to do all we can to make their burdens lighter.
4. Brokenness Causes More Brokenness
One of the most tragic figures in this series is Justin. Hannah is livid at him–he’s the only one who is featured on two tapes. And yet, to me, he is the most sympathetic.
We learn that the reason he protected Bryce, a rapist, is because Justin is in danger from mother’s boyfriends at home, and rich Bryce provides a place for him to crash.
What would have happened if Jessica’s responsible, loving dad had noticed that his daughter’s boyfriend seemed lost? But he just didn’t see, because kids who are unsafe at home aren’t going to announce it to the world.
Justin wasn’t a bad kid. He was a sad and desperate kid. And in our neighbourhoods, in our churches, in the contacts lists on our kids’ phones are lots of desperate kids.
So get to know your kids’ friends. Have them over and let them hang out. Talk to them like they’re real people and get to know what’s going on in their hearts. Many of them desperately need us.
And one more thing: If your child starts acting out, don’t assume it’s rebellion. Jessica starts drinking heavily, using drugs, and skipping school. From the outside, it looks like she’s making really bad decisions. But really she’s reeling from a rape she refuses to acknowledge. If your child suddenly starts doing things they’ve never done before, don’t just clamp down. Brokenness begets brokenness, and you may find something you didn’t know was there.
5. When a Kid Opens Up a Little, Don’t Close the Door
The person who was most responsible for Hannah’s death wasn’t her rapist, her bullies, or her friends who didn’t do enough. It was a well-meaning school counsellor who got everything wrong.
This is likely the biggest lesson that EVERYONE needs to take from this series, so please hear me on this:
When someone is seriously desperate, and they open up, they will not spill everything.
They’ll test you by spilling just a bit and seeing how you react.
So if someone opens the window a little bit on the blackness they’re feeling, treat it as if it is extremely serious. Do not take it at face value.
Encourage them. Invite more revelations. Just listen. And maybe, just maybe, if they see that you’re safe, they’ll tell you what’s actually going on.
13 Reasons Why‘s Lessons for Teens
6. Look to the Heart, and Offer Grace
Zach was a decent, kind-hearted guy. But when Hannah turned him down because she was hurt, Zach couldn’t see past her hurt, and he ended up retaliating, to disastrous consequences. Yet both of them were simply good kids who had been spurned.
Alex was a decent, kind-hearted guy, but when he was afraid he was losing his girlfriend, he did something really stupid and made a list of who is hot and who is not. Instead of seeing that Alex just made a mistake, Jessica abandoned him for a dangerous crowd.
Clay was the supreme decent, kind-hearted guy, but when Hannah pushed him away, he felt lost and rejected and couldn’t handle her anymore, so he pushed her away, too. He couldn’t see past her pain.
Over and over again in the series, kids who were decent kids, who could have had good friendships, hurt each other and then they broke relationship.
The whole time you’re watching this show you want to yell at Jessica and Zach and Hannah and Clay and Alex and say, “just stop! He’s a nice person! She’s a great girl! Don’t abandon each other!”
When people make real mistakes that show bad character (like Marcus standing up Hannah), you should walk away. But when people are just hurting–push forward. Offer grace. Don’t abandon good friendships because you’re hurt. Life could be so much better if we just stuck with each other through pain.
7. Things Won’t Get Better Until You Talk to Adults
The whole series is like watching a huge train wreck. Everyone is making such bad decisions and trying to cover everything up, and the more they do that, the worse things get.
Yet the last episode shows hope, because finally, finally, kids start to open up to adults.
Jessica tells her dad about the rape. Tony gives the tapes to Hannah’s parents. Clay’s mom finds out what’s going on. Courtney tells her dad her secret. And as adults get invited to the inner circle, we start to finally feel as if some healing can take place and some justice can be done.
The kids who let parents and adults in–Jessica, Courtney, Tony, Sherri, even Clay–they look like they’re going to be okay. The people who don’t–Justin, Tyler, Zach, and especially Alex–they look like they won’t be okay. The message? When you’re dealing with something huge, it can seem like the whole world rests on your shoulders. But it’s not supposed to. Sometimes we all need help. When you start to ask for it, things can start to get better.
8. Owning Up to Your Responsibility Matters. And Adults Don’t Always Understand
We all make mistakes. And in trying to cover up those mistakes or make excuses for ourselves we only make everything worse.
The only way to grow into people that we actually like is to admit our errors and come to terms with them. Everyone thought that Clay was overreacting and taking too much guilt on himself over what happened to Hannah, but he could not come to forgive himself until he acknowledged that he had let her down. Until you can face the reality of what you did, how can you come to peace with it?
It’s very much like our relationship with God. We can’t find true peace and forgiveness until we confess. Confession opens the door to healing.
And yet adults themselves don’t always understand this. Mr. Porter couldn’t come to terms with his role in Hannah’s death, and his inability to confess is a marked contrast to the road that Sherri eventually travels. Sherri confesses something big, no matter the consequences. Mr. Porter doesn’t, and it likely turns out worse for him than it does for Sherri.
9. Secrets are Toxic
When we keep secrets, we don’t just hurt others. We hurt ourselves.
Sherri’s secret was eating her up inside. Courtney’s secret caused her to become a cold-hearted person who identified with bullies, just to keep it. Jessica’s secret caused self-destructive behaviour. Justin’s secret caused such incredible guilt.
And, of course, all the secrets Hannah kept cost her her life. If she had let just one person in on what she was really feeling, all of this could have been avoided.
Secrets haunt you. And the only way to diminish the power they have over you is to bring them out in the open.
10. Everyone Else is Hurting, Too
Hannah thought she was alone. Hannah felt empty. Hannah felt like nobody understood.
Yet Tyler was hurting, too. Justin was certainly hurting. Alex was tortured. Sky was cutting herself. And Clay was lost.
When you’re hurting, and when everyone around you is keeping secrets to keep up appearances, it can feel like you’re all alone. And that makes your pain worse.
But please know this: everyone is hurting, even if it’s in different ways. And if we can open up, share our secrets, and let our guard down, then we can start to carry each other’s pain. And the burden will not seem so heavy.
How would this story have been different if all of the 13 Reasons Why characters could have seen Jesus in the hallway?
I think He would have sat down and just listened while they all cried. He would have looked beyond the bravado that the athletes had. He would have seen the pain Justin and Jessica were trying to mask. He would have helped Clay find his courage. He would have helped Hannah keep perspective, and have given her the hug she needed.
He wouldn’t have judged. He wouldn’t have told them to shape up or demand that they be perfect. He would have listened, even in the midst of the messiness.
If this show does nothing else, I hope that it calls people to listen to each other and love each other, and to be Jesus to the many, many teenagers who feel desperate. There are far too many Hannahs and Clays and Zachs and Justins and Jessicas in this world. And they need us. Can we open our eyes and be there for them, or will we give them another reason why?