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How I Talked to My Son About Penn State, the Aurora Killer — and Bad Guys in General

When should we shield our kids from the news and when should we help them understand it? I asked the mom friends. And then I sought out an expert opinion.

"Why are they carrying away Joe Paterno's statue? He's the greatest coach in all of college football!"

That was the incredulous, albeit naive, exclamation of my almost-10-year-old son as we sat in a crowded Rochester Hills restaurant for dinner on Sunday night. On an overhead television, the channel was tuned to ESPN. In previewing Monday's NCAA ruling against Penn State, the newscasters were showing, over and over again, footage of the statue being removed. 

To my son, they were removing the symbol of a hero. 

Right then and there, it was too chaotic to talk to him about it. Besides, his tacos came a minute later.

That was good, because I needed time to consult the experts.

What the girlfriends have to say

I sent an email to a few mama friends the next day.

"What are you telling your sons about Joe Paterno?"

They likely weren't surprised to hear from me: I'm often leaning on the girlfriends for parenting advice. 

I received many words of wisdom in response.

"I typically try to be honest," one friend replied. "All my kids know what's going on at Penn State, just a lighter version of it, meaning Joe knew that someone was abusing children and he didn't do anything about it."

That made sense to me. 

"Our philosophy lately is that we are honest and want them to hear the facts from us because eventually they may find out anyway and we want the info to be correct," another friend answered.

Also true.

But, still, a part of me wanted to shield him from the news altogether. 

'Random bad things happen'

The next friend I called was truly a professional. Joelle Kekhoua is co-owner of Mental Fitness Center in Rochester. She has a master's degree in psychology, and counseling children and families are her specialties.

She's also the mom of three.

Joelle told me, first and foremost, not to avoid the topic. 

"There's a line between sheltering them and teaching them about how the world is," said Joelle. "The world is full of immoral people — athletes who do drugs or get in trouble for other things, for example. You will have to address it eventually."

Joelle provided a few tips that I thought made sense to share. Of course, all of this depends on the maturity of your children. But in general, she said:

  • For young children (ages 6 or 7) it's OK to relate it to their own punishments — or to getting a time-out. Don't tell them a coach was abusing children. Tell them the coaches were involved in making bad decisions and are facing the consequences.  
  • When kids that young press you for details ("what bad choices did they make, mom?") it's all right to be a little vague. "Tell them it's a long story and there's some adult stuff that's not really appropriate for them to know right now," Joelle suggested.
  • For older kids, the conversation will need to be tailored to what they can handle. A 15-year-old, for instance, can probably handle the whole truth. My 9-year-old could handle hearing that kids were abused by a coach and scared into keeping the abuse a secret.
  • The same guidelines of tailoring the conversation can be applied to discussions about the Colorado movie theater shooting — and any tragedy, in fact. For younger kids, for example, you can tell them that just like in the movies, bad guys really do exist.
  • In the end, make sure to explain to kids that sometimes bad things happen that can't be predicted, so it's best to live your lives careful and cautious and safe.

"The key component is to make sure that you have a lot of time when you decide to talk to them about it," Joelle said. "Be patient. Wait for their questions. You need to have an opportunity to give them some reassurance after you talk.

"Kids need to understand that random bad things do happen. But they need you to be able give them some reassurance that you'll help keep them safe."

They also need to know, Joelle concluded our conversation, that you can't let the possibility that something bad might happen stop you from living. 

Time to talk

I used all of these tips when I talked to my own son about both events. His reaction was much as expected: he was inquisitive, then thoughtful and quiet. He seemed, for at least a moment, scared, sad and angry all at once.

He seemed to know, inherently, that bad guys are out there.

But it didn't seem to stop him from living. After all, there were things to do.

"Do you have any more questions?" I asked him.

"What's for dinner?" he responded in all seriousness.

Mission accomplished. 

Kristin Bull is the editor of Rochester Patch.

Angela Youngblood July 25, 2012 at 12:16 PM
Great article, great advice. Thank you!!!!!
Carol Jackson July 25, 2012 at 01:35 PM
I would be interested in hearing what you did to address the good & bad sides of Paterno's nature (to the best of our knowledge). One thing I used to stress to my kids (e.g., when one of the Red Wings's goalies got a DUI) is that the news media gives us the feeling that we know people, but we really don't. We only know what image makers want to tell us about what sports figures & other celebrities are like, or what comes out as scandal. Both kinds of news have elements of exaggeration & suppression. So it's important not to look to such strangers as role models for anything other than -- for example -- how to play goalie well. I think teaching kids to be skeptical of how much they really know about celebrities -- in general -- & to be skeptical about the importance of media-generated events (such as movie openings) is helpful in a variety of contexts, not just when the darker side of celebrity is suddenly revealed. For role models about how to be a person, look to people you genuinely know. & those people do have their faults, as do all of us -- but the good usually outweighs the bad, or at least we have a more natural sense of how to balance our view of both sides of a person. Also, for Paterno, I am guessing there was an evolution -- that he started out with high principles, but over time, too many people kowtowed to him, which may have, in some ways, screwed him up -- some healthy criticism is important for us all, even grown ups.
Hilary K. July 25, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Thank you!
Michele July 25, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Very good point, Carol! Kids need to know that just because they are celebrities that they are immune from bad choices/lifestyles, etc.
Chris July 25, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Although I am not sure it is truthful to say Paterno was"scared into keeping it a secret". He just didn't want to cause a scandal for a prestigious university. There is a difference!
Sherry July 25, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Ugh. what a difficult topic, but "thank you" to Patch for helping us with some good suggestions.
Kristin Bull (Editor) July 25, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Right -- I meant the kids (the victims) were scared. Not Paterno.
Kristin Bull (Editor) July 25, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Right, Carol. I always try to point out everyday 'heroes' and role models to my kids. Even people they know who are doing great things, whether it be in their school or in the neighborhood -- whether it be friends who adopt a rescue dog or a friend's mom who volunteers her time at a hospital. It was eye-opening last year when my son, for a school assignment, had to list some heroes. They were almost all pro athletes (including one, in particular, whom I cringed at hearing made the list!) We talked about what makes a hero and he revised his list - slightly.
Audre Zembrzuski July 25, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Chris, you are right, and you can't take away that he was a great coach. He has passed on and they should have left the statue there. Or maybe the kids took it down because they won't be playing football for four years. For students that is hard to take, even though that is not the reason they are going to college.
Daffy Noodnicks July 25, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Audre: Penn State will not stop playing football. They have a 4 year post season ban. According to the Freeh report Joe Paterno covered up the rape of little boys for 14 years to protect the football program and his own reputation. I believe removing the statue glorifying the man was justified.
Kristin Bull (Editor) July 26, 2012 at 12:22 PM
In a blog post on Lake Orion Patch, Orion Township librarian Kristen Remenar writes about a children's book that can help young kids understand tragedy. Good points! http://patch.com/B-cgFh

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