Friday, November 11, 2011

What Every Parent Can Learn from the Penn State Scandal

First of all, let me explain what this post is NOT going to do.

1. I will NOT discuss whether Joe Paterno should or should not have been fired.
2. I will NOT discuss the horrific details about the abuse that was suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky.  It is public information now, and you should read the Grand Jury Report for yourself before expressing any sort of opinion about this scandal, especially according to some well known reporters.
3. I will NOT defend the actions of the student body of Penn State who thought it would be a good idea to riot and make themselves look like idiots on national television.

Alright, that said, I would like to try to draw some wisdom from this terrible situation so that parents that are struggling with how to feel about it (or talk to their kids about it) can hopefully process what is available and make wise decisions about their own families.  After all, the best way to prevent something like this from happening again is to educate, not isolate, your children.
Okay, hopefully, you have read the report.  I'm serious.  Read it.  Because the conclusions I draw will be based largely on the facts of the report.

Jerry Sandusky was a predator of the worst kind.  After you read the report, it is clear that Jerry Sandusky was using his position of power and influence to identify, isolate and abuse young males in the worst ways possible.  He targeted boys that were a specific type, and he used his charity and Penn State facilities to have access to them.  He used money and power to manipulate those boys, and he robbed them of their innocence. These boys were involved with Second Mile because of their background or circumstances.  Sandusky knew that there were not likely to be overprotective parents concerned with their children's whereabouts.  Sandusky knew that his status was seen as "above suspicion" to most people, and he used that to his advantage.

Most parents ask themselves, "What can I do to make sure my kids are never taken advantage of in this way?"  There are two things to keep in mind when asking yourself this question.  The first thing to remember is that situations of stranger perpetrated sexual assault in public are relatively rare, so don't panic and freak out and lock your kid in his or her room.  That's not good for them either (read the book Free Range Kids if you haven't already).  The odds are in your favor that they will not be assaulted by a stranger in public.  By the time Jerry Sandusky took advantage of these boys, he was no longer a stranger.  And the places that he was abusing them were not public - his house, the shower areas late at night, his car, etc.  Most children are taken advantage of by someone they know.  The second thing to remember is that Jerry Sandusky was targeting children without strong families.  Strengthening your family is the best way to combat this type of predatory behavior, and I hope to show you why.

1. Start Teaching Your Kids When they are Young

When your children are old enough to understand the concept of personal space (usually around age 5), start teaching them about inappropriate touches.  If you start when they are young, they are more likely to trust you when they are older.

2. Talk to Your Kids & Partner

The victim that broke this case open had a mother he could talk to, and she was not afraid to talk on his behalf.  If your kids are comfortable talking to you, then if something terrible really does happen, they will most likely view you as a place of refuge where they are comfortable disclosing what happened.  If you and your child don't get along very well, or they trust their other parent or a grandparent, make sure to encourage that relationship so that they can talk to a grown up that you trust.

3. Know Where They Are and Who They're With

You might think that all you need to do is give them a cell phone, and you have a good leash on them.  I would suggest being more involved than that.  Notice I said more involved, not more restrictive.  I'm not advocating that you never let your kid out of the house.  Instead, what I'm saying is that you know where they are, and more importantly, know the people that are in their lives.  Get to know their teachers, coaches, friends and friends' parents.  Remember, Jerry Sandusky was not a stranger.  Getting to know the people that are around your kid is a way to show the predators that your child is off limits.  You are an involved parent that is willing to fight for their kid.  Plus, being involved will improve your relationship with your child

4. Continue to Educate Your Child as they Get Older

Most children have a very short attention span.  And a lot of them have an even shorter memory.  It doesn't hurt to update their education with age.  As they are ready to handle more appropriate material, you can continue to educate them about what to do should they receive inappropriate attention.

5. You May Have to Fight for Your Child

If there is anything that we have learned about institutional cover ups between Penn State and the Catholic Churches in the Boston area, it's that people in powerful institutions often act to protect the best interests (read: money) of that institution.  It is sad and unfortunate that these people don't realize that the institution will not protect them when the truth comes out, and in the meantime, they allow heinous acts of abuse to continue under their watch.  What does this mean for you as a parent?  It means you may have to fight to be heard.  You may have to fight to get justice.  You may need to fight the temptation to be silenced by money.  I don't wish these circumstances on my worst enemies, but the person largely responsible for breaking this open was a mother who cared enough to not rest until someone listened to her.

 # # #

Blog Note: My wife will be having surgery next week, so I will not be blogging in order to take good care of her.  I have lined up guest posts from two other great dad bloggers that I know you will enjoy.  So, look for those on Tuesday and Friday.  Have a great weekend!  


  1. My sister was an advocate for Domestic and Sexual Abuse Victims. The sad thing is she worked with children and was always busy. Your article was well written and gave us important reminders. Thank you for tackling such a tough subject. I hope that your wife recovers fast from surgery!

  2. Great points all around. As a child psychotherapist, I can't stress enough the importance of communicating with children. Avoiding difficult topics doesn't make those topics go away. I worked in school administration for many years. I often went head to head with teachers who wanted to have relationships with students outside of school. Boundaries exist for a reason. Of course you want to trust the teachers who are with your kids all day, but that doesn't mean that they should go to the movies with your kids on the weekends.

  3. I can't agree with you more. My personal opinion of the "people" involved not withstanding, an involved parent who knows what their children are doing and who they are doing it with is a great protection against pervs who would harm them.

  4. Good for you to so quickly get out this valuable post!

    Why didn't I do it first! lol...

  5. Wow, glad to get so much feedback in just 24 hrs. I was at a wedding last night, so I was not able to respond right away.

    @sustahl - Thank you for the kind words and the well wishes. And I hope she recovers quickly too!

    @Katie - Thank you for your special insight! I have several child services workers in my family, and I know stories like this break your heart. Thank you for sharing your expertise, and please let me know if you ever share your thoughts on these issues so I can link to them.

    @MotherhoodLooms - Thanks for visiting tribe mate! Thanks for the comment.

    @Bruce - I'm right here in the heart of Nittany Lion country. It's been all over the news all week, so, I actually feel like I'm late with it. But glad to see that others find it timely, even if it does make you jealous!



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