Mama Madison: Lessons for kids from the Penn State debacle

Truth telling is important on many levels

My oldest son is litigious by nature. When he was three years old, I told him he couldn't bring the Matchbox car he found in the sandbox at Westmorland Park home. Instead he brought home the Matchbox cement mixer. When I told him I was disappointed he had disobeyed me, he reminded me I had never specifically said not to take a "truck." I had only forbidden him from taking a "car." As far as he was concerned, he hadn't broken my rule. The fact that neither toy belonged to him was beside the point. It was not easy living with a pre-school Bill Clinton.

Fast-forward to sixth grade when his science teacher gave the entire class permission to use the Internet to research the answers to a take-home assignment. Once home, it took my son no more than 10 minutes to find the teachers' edition to the worksheet on-line, complete with each and every answer spelled out for him. A heated mother-son discussion ensued. I was upset and felt using the Internet answers was tantamount to cheating. He felt the teacher had made it perfectly clear using on-line sources was just fine; it wasn't his fault that he'd hit the homework jackpot. It was excellent opportunity to engage in a "spirit of the law" vs. "letter of the law" discussion.

So as my son watched the unpleasant situation at Penn State unfold on ESPN last week, it was clear to me that there was a key lesson for him, now 14, in all that was happening at State College. This was the perfect opportunity for my husband and I to let him know that regardless of what laws were technically broken and by whom, just about every person who knew of Jerry Sandusky's alleged actions and didn't call the police broke the "laws" of decency and compassion for children.

We explained that it is possible that assistant coach Mike McQueary might have met his legal obligation in telling his supervisor Joe Paterno of the sexual assault he witnessed in the locker room. It is possible his job may even be safe given whistle-blower protection status under Pennsylvania state law. But by choosing not to call the police immediately, McQueary behaved immorally. Many boys, we told our son, may have been unnecessary sexual assault victims due the 28-year-old graduate assistant's ethical weakness.

We further explained that even though Joe Paterno may not go to jail for his part in the scandal -- he told both the Athletic Director and Penn State's interim VP of finance and business what McQueary told him, his minimum legal responsibility -- he still failed every victim of Sandusky's abuse. We told our son that Paterno was ethically obliged to make sure a member of his staff was fully investigated for the alleged criminal behavior. But he never followed up, allowing Sandusky continued access to kids.

There are many teachable moments that have surfaced in the wake of the Penn State breakdowns. It's a reminder to parents that we need to be in tune with our children, and teach them that no one, not even a trusted adult, has the right to make them feel uncomfortable in any way, especially sexually. It's also an opportunity to remind our kids that while being a fervent fan is fun, coaches and others involved in athletic programs are got gods. They are human, and fallible.

I am hopeful that the outrage directed at Penn State will cause states to update their laws and make it a crime not to report suspected child abuse. But in the meantime, what I most need my kid to understand is that there are certain situations where there is always a right thing to do, regardless of what any law on the books may say.

Last week Paterno was quoted as saying, "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Hindsight, though, is not the measure I want my son to use for ethical decision-making. Moral decisions need to be made in the present -- especially when children's futures are involved.

Sari Judge blogs regularly as Mama Madison at Isthmus Parents.

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