By Kimberly Parker -
Nearly one month ago, Jerry Sandusky (ex-football coach at the Pennsylvania State University) was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 young boys over the period of 15 years. I’m not coming late to the party in my writing about these crimes. Compiling this article about the case has proven much more difficult than I would have imagined. Not only because of the horror in my heart as I consider how terrified and confused those children must have been; but because I have a 10 year old boy. I am a Penn State Alumni. I grew up (as an elite gymnast) spending much time in the care of male coaches — even traveling and occasionally staying in hotel rooms with them. I can imagine the scene quite vividly and those images haunt me.
I was not a victim of abuse. However, I have friends who I competed with, who were coached by men I knew, who were abused by them. My throat tightens up as I think about it.
People who are outside looking in are indignant as they wonder, “How could those parents NOT have known?” “How can they entrust their children in the care of these monsters?”
I don’t have a good answer for this. In retrospect, there were signs. In Sandusky’s case, another adult saw the abuse outright and no one responded on behalf of the child. As I think of the coach I knew who was brought up on charges, reflection calls to mind incidents and comments that were inappropriate or “off-base” — but not enough to raise any flags. Or were they?
There must be balance between blindly trusting other adults and bubble-wrapping your children from contact with the outside world. What is a parent to do? We can make smart choices regarding our children and their interaction with other adults (coaches, group leaders, etc.) using the following guidelines:
1. Don’t excuse the red flags. A seemingly flippant comment; an off-color remark — what comes out of the mouth gives signs of what lies in the heart. If another adult, coach or kids leader makes comments (even a rare, occasional one) that give you pause, don’t make excuses for it. Let that guide your decision not to allow that person alone-time with your child. If you see the adult acting inappropriately in some situations, don’t put your child in a place to witness or be victim of the same. Team parties or sleepovers should be chaperoned by parents. Always. If a coach insists on sleeping over with kids (yes, it happens) you are far better off dealing with a sad child who didn’t get to attend the party than the possible alternative.
2. If your child shows hesitation about riding in a car or being alone with another adult, respect them. Just because you have no reason to be alarmed, doesn’t mean your child feels the same way. He or she may be hesitating for a very good reason. Don’t force the issue in the moment, make another arrangement, and plan to discuss it with your child at a later time.
3. Never, never (did I say never?) accuse your child of making up an allegation when he or she brings it to you. If he or she has come to you with a concern, you have a responsibility for that information. If your child feels at all like they are going to be in trouble from you for what they say, you will lose their trust. The most difficult thing to do is remain calm in difficult circumstances. If you need help determining how to respond, ask a professional. Your children trust you when they feel you are on their side. And by the way, BE on their side!
4. If you are joining a group or team that is run by a club or organization, ask if the organization does criminal background and reference checks on their leadership and coaches. It isn’t being a “fear-monger,” it is being responsible with your most precious gift — your child.
5. Encourage question asking and teach your children how to make good decisions. This builds skills they will use in every part of their lives. I have a son with autism and we often use (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map) “mind-mapping” to teach him about thought flow and decision-making. We also diagram “if-then” consequence charts. “If I do this, what are the possible outcomes?” What does this have to do with protecting our children from abuse? Everything! When a child has a strategy for making good decisions, he or she is simply better equipped. You won’t always be there physically, but the tools you teach can be. Predators rely on children to be weak and to believe the lies they are told gain their silence. A child who knows how to think, who knows how to ask questions, and who knows how to speak confidently will be more threatening for a predator.
Regarding the abuse that happened on and off the Penn State campus, Penn State released a statement that read: “The legal process has spoken and we have tremendous respect for the men who came forward to tell their stories publicly. No verdict can undo the pain and suffering caused by Mr. Sandusky, but we do hope this judgment helps the victims and their families along their path to healing.”
Parents, the greatest thing you can teach your children is that you love them unconditionally and are crazy about them, no matter what happens to them or around them. The abuse that happened at the hands of Sandusky, the molestation of my ex-teammates, the horrors that happen in our communities are, unfortunately, something that we may encounter as we live in this fallen world.
We can’t control the behavior of others, we can only be good stewards with what we’ve been given. If there is an area of your child’s life where you haven’t been paying much attention; if you feel something is “off” but can’t quite figure out what that is; if the Spirit within is giving you caution about a matter — don’t wait any longer. With prayer and godly counsel behind you, take steps today to move forward wisely.
Kimberly Parker is an author and mother of three. She writes about parenting, autism, human interest stories and business matters from a Christian perspective. Her book is “Radical Love…Forever Changed.”
(Photo by: FreeDigitalPhotos.net)