Pupils at Radyr comprehensive, just along from Bridgend, have been studying Malorie Blackman's book, Noughts and Crosses. It's a bit like Romeo and Juliet. Well, sort of. It has a balcony scene and - more controversially - a suicide. After reading the novel, Radyr's 13-year-olds are asked to imagine what it would be like to be so desperate as to take your own life. They have written their own version of the book's tragic suicide note. And some parents have gone ballistic. "It's dreadful," said one mum, "all the children are aware what is going on in Bridgend - what was this teacher thinking of? My daughter said the book is making her depressed."
I know this woman wants only to protect her child. But she has got this one wrong. Today's parents have been more shielded from death than any before them. During the last 50 or so years death has become hidden, taking place in private and in hospitals. These days, death enters public space as though it were something weird and creepy. It's almost as if we see death as unnatural, and that is why many parents are keen to prevent their children knowing about it. I have lost count of the number of mourners I have come across who don't want their children to attend a family funeral because "it might upset them".
This is not a healthy state of affairs. For those children who remain at home while over-anxious parents drive off to the crematorium are often being babysat by fearful imaginations. Confusion is deepened when returning parents explain what has happened though a thicket of euphemisms: "fallen asleep", "gone away", and so on. Many parents have lost the art of speaking plainly about death and have thus opened up a dangerous disconnectedness with our finitude. We cede the education of our children to action films and video games, where simulated death is omnipresent and often linked with excitement. How can we be so surprised that young people are killing themselves with such terrible alacrity when so many have been raised with such a shallow appreciation of the realities of death?
Academic psychologists generally agree that there are three things a child has to understand in order to be said to understand death: irreversibility, non-functionality (that when we die, we stop working completely) and universality. According to this definition, most children understand death somewhere between the ages of seven and eight. And yet there is surely a difference between understanding as recognised by epistemologists and a deeper, broader insight that requires a child to get its head around tricky ideas like the fact that the world doesn't revolve around their existence. This requires experience and a much greater openness to talk and think.
Though many of Christianity's cultured despisers would insist that us God-botherers are credulous on the subject of death, the liturgy for the beginning of Lent remains one of the most powerful proclamations of mortality. On that day, I mark the foreheads of my congregation with ash and whisper to each: "Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Where else do we speak of such things in public? That's not even mentioning Good Friday.
Thank God, then, for authors like Blackman who are helping children to have the sorts of conversations from which parents are running a mile. My 11-year-old daughter's current bedside read is Anne Kelley's The Bower Bird. A young girl is waiting for a heart and lung transplant. From the cover of the book shines out the defiant words: "I want to see a whale. I want a boy to kiss me one day. I want to run along a beach one day. I want to live." Isn't this the sort of wisdom that we need young people to appreciate - especially those who believe they have nothing to live for?
(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, and an Ekklesia associate. His latest book is Christianity With Attitude. This column is adapted from one that appeared in The Guardian newspaper.