Air Date: 11/09/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Here's a heads-up warning to parents: if you have children with you, you might want to catch this commentary at kunr.org as it deals with sensitive subject material that may not be suitable for young listeners. *** If you've been following the news at all recently, you're aware that a number of young people as young as 13 in one instance decided to take their own lives. In almost all of these cases, the young people in question were gay and had been bullied at school, on the Internet, and in their communities. It may surprise you to know that this has happened here in Reno, too. In fact, it happens far too often.These deaths have led to a widely publicized campaign called "It Gets Better", led by several gay adults who have had the courage to share their own experiences with being bullied, and sometimes, with being rejected by their own families. The issue of sexual preference is obviously a highly sensitive one and there's a great deal we don't know about how and why some people prefer their own gender. But most of the available research leads to the same conclusion: being gay is no more a choice than being straight. No one wakes up one morning and thinks, "Gee, I think I'll be gay today," anymore than straight people make a conscious choice to be straight. But misinformation, fear, and prejudice run rampant through our society, and not surprisingly, our children learn from us.Many of the young people I know are far more comfortable with diversity than their parents are. They go to school and hang out with kids of different cultures, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. But there are always a few and there have always been a few who feel better about themselves when they're making someone else feel worse. And given the prevailing lack of civility and respect in our society and the hysterical rhetoric in some quarters about gay rights, some young people feel justified in torturing and humiliating those who are different especially those who are gay or lesbian. Aggression and strength are not the same thing. Our schools and our communities are only as safe as their weakest, most silent members. The research on bullying shows that in order for school bullying-prevention programs to be successful, leadership must start in the principal's office and continue down through the staff to the custodians and bus drivers. By the way, trying to prevent bullying by working with the victims or the bullies is ineffective: what works is when the observers kids like ours who stand by and watch and listen step up and say "not in our school." In a Canadian school a couple of years ago, a freshman boy wore a pink shirt to school and immediately was bullied for being gay. The bullying stopped when two popular senior boys decided "not in our school" and, without saying anything, wore pink shirts to school. The next day there were more pink shirts, and the movement spread to other schools. And this is how it stops: when all of us decide that we won't tolerate abuse of those who can't defend themselves. Many parents believe that simply refusing to point out differences not talking about skin color or religious difference or sexual orientation will prevent prejudice. But in his recent book "NurtureShock", New York Times writer Po Bronson explores research that shows that unless parents talk clearly, openly, and early about discrimination, respect, and differences, children not only notice these differences, they lack adult guidance about how to make sense of them.In other words, if we fail to teach our children about respect, equality, tolerance, and kindness, they will adopt the attitudes around them. The voice they obey may simply be the loudest voice they hear and if you've been listening to the media lately, that's a frightening thought.Human beings have always feared those they don't recognize or understand. We have a long history of discrimination against those whose skin color, language, or religion is different from our own. But when young people are suffering so deeply that death seems preferable to another day at school, we need to speak up loud and clear. If you're a parent, you need to thoughtfully explore what you believe about prejudice and discrimination, about all the ways humans differ. And you need to recognize that your children will learn from what you do, not just from what you say. Peace and respect begin in each and every home, in your kitchen and in my living room. We are all responsible for those around us, and the best rule is still the Golden Rule: we should treat others as we want to be treated ourselves and as we hope our children will be treated. My grown son teases me that I'm just an old hippie but I suspect he's right. In the timeless words of Gandhi, we must be the change we want to see in the world, not just for ourselves but for our children and for all children. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.