You didn’t tell me I had to be moral.
It’s interesting how outraged most people are by the Penn State sex scandal. I’m outraged, too, and my outrage goes far beyond the boundaries of the university.
The betrayal is unspeakable and the devastation spreads far beyond Penn State and the people involved, even beyond the students, players, and faculty. Sure, when the trust in something as sacred as a prestigious university is crushed, the ripples of fear are felt across the country—maybe even the world. But it isn’t the deeds done by a few bad men that outrage me the most—what’s got me really pissed-off is that the whole thing was so unnecessary. I’m outraged because those poor abused boys were never taught how to think for themselves well enough to ensure no one ever abused them in this way.
Regardless the penalties the perpetrators receive, we will remain victims if we don’t stop looking to other people, coaches, teachers, priests, and presidents (of universities, companies, and even the United States) to care enough to protect our kids from evil.
Too many examples
I use examples like Penn State to teach my boys personal responsibility. Maybe you can’t prevent a bad person from trying to do a bad thing to you, but that doesn’t mean you are a victim. I watched my boys react as we discussed the tragedy. First, they were sad for the abused boys because they could empathize. They knew what it felt like to be a victim of an adult bully in authority (teachers, coaches, priests, other parents in the community, etc.) Then they were grateful that this horrible thing hadn’t happened to them. If a parent discussed this with her kids at all, I’m guessing most probably shifted the focus to blame and started pointing fingers:
- At the system for failing to stop the abuse sooner
- At the pedophiles for ruining the lives of so many people
- At the parents of these kids for sleeping at the wheel or for simply not caring
Fear and victimhood are common experiences shared by parents and kids alike; the parents are empathizing, too. All those bad people allowed this to happen to all those poor families. If the conversation stops here, all we’ve done is to reinforce hope and fear:
Hope—that it never happens to us
Fear—that it might and we’ll end up in the headlines, too
The second half of the discussion
Fearful people make poor choices and fear comes from uncertainty. How do you eliminate uncertainty and fear in the world? You can’t. What you can do is build a reserve of confidence and certainty in personal power. Confidence that you’ll be able to stand tall in the face of life, no matter what; certainty that you are a person of worth and value that deserves to be respected and happy. The second half of the discussion is about building reserves.
After allowing my boys to feel their initial feelings for a little while, I asked them how they thought the situation could have been different. The shift in thinking flashed across their faces; they went from fearful victims to empowered young men. They knew the answer was simple: Say no.
- No, you can’t do that to me.
- No, I won’t allow that.
- No, you’re making me uncomfortable.
- Or, just plain ol’ NO!
But, as rewarding as it was for me to watch the empowerment process unfold, it also told me that the message of personal leadership and responsibility wasn’t solid enough just yet because they needed a reminder. They needed me to spark their power and remind them of their obligation to choose wisely for themselves.
What it takes
It’s simple to talk about the power of “no” and the choice we all have to either stand tall or to fall prey, but it’s not so easy a thing to do without support and practice. Oh, and I’m not talking about our kids yet, I’m talking about you and me—the support and practice we need as parents first.
To enable your child to make good choices for himself, you have to create an environment in which he can practice making choices. How else can a person learn to recognize a good choice from a bad choice? Practice takes time and requires mistakes. Parents have to be ready for the choice-mistakes made by kids and to risk being harshly judged by their peers. Consider junior high school football as an example. Your son signed up for the football team and becomes a key player. One cold morning he decides he doesn’t want to go to the game. The coaches, players, and other families are relying on him. They all look to you to make sure he arrives on time, with his equipment, ready to play. His decision to skip the game would have uncomfortable consequences for both of you; he would have to atone for his decision with his peers and the coach while you would face criticism from your peers. He learns a valuable lesson about commitment, but what about you? You already know that lesson but are still faced with judgmental and unforgiving other parents who feel self-righteous because their kids showed up (crying or not) and their kids had their equipment, (even if it meant a trip home to get the helmet.)
Parents need reserves, too
A parent’s reserves of confidence and certainty come from connecting the lessons learned from choice-mistakes to their ultimate goal: making good on their parenting promises. Most parents make sacred vows of obligation to their newborn babies, “I promise to love you and protect you. I promise to teach you right from wrong and to always be there if you need me. I promise to give you the very best I can.” Thinking about those sacred promises adds to a parent’s reserves, but you’ll need more. Most parents aren’t confident or certain how to go about fulfilling their promises. They are victims themselves and vulnerable without peer approval. Most parents aren’t even aware that they aren’t very good at thinking for themselves and foolishly think that lessons about choice are learned without the discomfort of choice-mistakes. When your son shows up at the game because you forced him, it wasn’t a lesson about his power or his commitment—and it wasn’t about yours either. It was about the power in your fear of looking like a bad parent.
Proud to be a parent
Mothers and fathers have to be proud of what they do. We have to know that we can keep the promises we made and we have to consider the consequences if we don’t. If we don’t fulfill on our promises we place our children at the mercy of people like Jerry Sandusky, Charles Oross, Mary Kay Letourneau, or some disturbed priest. When viewed this way, it is my wish that courage and certainty begin to outweigh the fear of looking like a bad parent in the eyes of faceless other people. Rock the boat if you must, allow your children to make choice-mistakes and help them learn even when you know you’ll be looked upon by your community unfavorably. Do it for your kids and do it for my kids, please.
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