Parenting Lessons We Can Learn From the Penn State Scandal

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The Penn State sex-abuse scandal has people up in arms, and in some ways we find ourselves in a similar position as when the scandal in the Catholic church was exposed – stung by the realization of the extent to which people will go to conceal what they wish to deny. 

In the first place, few can fathom how Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of the Penn State football team, could commit the heinous acts of which he’s been accused.

But beyond that, however, lies the business of the cover-up.  How could three other high-ranking staff members at the university (former head coach Joe Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz) allegedly fail to report the abuse after one of the graduate students reported witnessing an incident?

The truth is that it happens more frequently than we would like to admit. Let’s take a look at a few of the lessons that parents can take away from this tragedy.

Lesson #1 – “Stranger Danger” Misses the Point 

Recently, my daughter came home from school to proudly show me the “Run, Yell, Tell” safety curriculum that she is learning in school.  The primary focus of the program?  Teaching kids about “stranger danger” – what they should do if a stranger tries to hurt them. The problem with this approach is that most sexual abuse is not committed by strangers. It is committed by someone that the child knows and trusts: a neighbor, friend, teacher or coach. 

Sex abuse is often committed by someone in a position of authority; someone whose position makes them a trusted figure in the community. Sex abuse is not typically a one-time incident.  The perpetrator takes the time to gradually build a relationship with his prey.  Perpetrators tend to choose victims that are shy or vulnerable because they are more likely to be too insecure to report the abuse, and then they work to foster those insecurities. Victims are often too fearful to report the abuse because they are afraid that nobody will believe them or because they are fearful of retaliation.

The end result: As parents, if we rely on “stranger danger” as the focus of our safety talks, we leave our children vulnerable to sexual predators. 

Lesson #2 – Justification is a Powerful Force

TIME ran a story this week called Bystander Psychology: Why Some Witnesses to Crimes Do Nothing The article points out that although most people say they would intervene if they witnessed incidents such as a child being raped, social science research tells us that many would not.  A few years ago, I had enough reason to call the authorities and report an incident of suspected abuse. Through the reaction of other adults in that incident, I learned just how strong an instinct denial can be.

We are social creatures. Acceptance and approval are extremely powerful forces for us.  In the 1960s, Henry Milgram conducted a famous experiment in which he measured the willingness of people to obey an authority figure who told them to do something that conflicted with their conscience.  In the experiment, he asked participants to administer high voltage shocks to someone who they thought to be a fellow participant.  The results of the experiment were disturbing – 65% of the participants administered what they thought to be a full series of shocks, simply because the experimenter encouraged them to continue.  Why did they do it?  Because humans have a particularly strong ability to justify their actions in order to seek approval.

In many ways, we are wired for cover-ups.  Our brains work on heuristics, one of which is the acceptance heuristic.  That is what tells us not to rock-the-boat, especially if it might put us at risk socially.  For Paterno, it would have been a big risk to go to the police – it would have have put him and the whole Penn State program at risk.  So he did just enough to justify that he had done what he needed to do – he told his superior.  Paterno made the news because he is a national figure, but his actions are not unique. 

Lesson #3 – Practice Proactive Parenting

So, what can we do to stop this from happening again?  As parents, we need to understand the implications of human nature so that we and our children are able to guard against it.  It is extremely difficult to stand up to peer pressure, real or imagined. “Just say “no,” just doesn’t work. We are not wired to work that way. 

This means that as parents, we need to be very conscious of the example that we set.  So often, we want to keep from rocking-the-boat, so we avoid conflict at all cost.  Maybe we witness someone littering at the park, and we don’t say anything.  Maybe we don’t want to confront a child that has taken a toy from our child, so we encourage him to move on and get over it.  These are examples of not standing up for what we believe because we want to avoid conflict, and that sends an example to our children. 

I’m not saying that we need to try to provoke conflict, but it is important for children to see their parents standing up for what they believe, even if it risks conflict.  After all, that is what we hope that they will do when they are faced with similar dilemmas.

The other thing we can do is to teach specific strategies to children about how to handle such dilemmas.  We need to go beyond the “Stranger Danger” talk and tell kids what to do if any person does things to make them uncomfortable – including those that we know and trust.  We need our kids to know that we will listen to them and be their advocates, even if it means it will be uncomfortable for us.  We need to talk to our children about peer pressure and how difficult it is to stand up against it, and then we need to teach them how they can do that in very specific ways.

What happened at Penn State was a tragedy, but it is not a unique situation. The only thing that we can hope is that the notoriety of this incident can help to bring change.  Already, it has spurred members of the government of Pennsylvania to introduce measures to change the laws about reporting sexual abuse.  Additionally, it has made Citadel College rethink the ways that they handled a similar incident.  Perhaps it has also inspired other individuals throughout the world to have the courage to take risks to stand up for what they know is right.

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is an educator, author, and parenting expert who is passionate about the field of resilience.  Her book, The Resilience Formula: The Key to Proactive Parenting, co-authored by bullying expert Dr. Joel Haber, is due to come out in early 2012. Learn more on her website, www.URresilient.com.

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