This morning, my 11-year old sports fanatic, and avid fan of ESPN Sportscenter, came into the kitchen as I was making lunches before school. He plopped down on a barstool at the counter and as he was pouring the milk into his bowl of Cheerios, he said to me, "Guess what?!? Penn State fired Joe Paterno last night! Can you believe it?!?" The butter knife that I was holding in my right hand stopped mid-spread and hovered over the bread, leaving a trail of grape jelly in its wake, as I knew The Question was next.
"Yep. I heard that on the news this morning," I cautiously replied, bracing myself for The Question that inevitably followed.
My boy paused as if deep in thought and continued, "So Mom. Why exactly did Joe Paterno get fired?"
For a moment, I said nothing.
In parenting, you only get these teachable moments sporadically, and you have the chance to say the right thing. You can lie and flub your way through it, or you can go with the truth.
Unfortunately, the truth isn't always rainbows and unicorns.
Sometimes the truth is awful. And dirty. And heinous. And deplorable. And just about every adjective that you can think of for a horrible, life-changing act against children. Then you look at your 11-year old innocent boy, who knows nothing of the horribleness that lies within the hearts and minds of some people. The closest contact he has had with pure evil is a fictional character in a Darth Vader costume on his television screen.
He waits for your answer eagerly, and your brain scrambles for the words, especially because it is 7:02 a.m., and your brain struggles for any coherent thought at 7:02 a.m., let alone a coherent thought and talk about child abuse.
I looked at him and began. "Well, there was this guy, Jerry Sandusky, who used to be an assistant coach to Joe Paterno. And everybody thought he was this great guy, because he was a good coach, and all his players loved him. They also thought he was a great guy because he started a charity to help needy children. But it turned out that he was a very, VERY bad man. He hurt little boys. He abused them. He touched their private parts. And you know that it's NEVER, EVER okay to let anyone besides a doctor, when Mom or Dad is there, touch your private parts, right?"
"Duh, Mom. I know that. You only told me that like a billion times."
"I know you knew that. Anyway, even though most people didn't know it, Jerry Sandusky was a very, very bad man who hurt boys, and it turned out that Joe Paterno and some of his staff knew all about it. At first, Joe Paterno did the right thing and reported it to one of his bosses, but they didn't do anything about it. So what should Joe have done instead?"
My boy thought about it for a minute and responded, "Well, I guess he should have gone to the police."
"Exactly. He should have gone to the police, or even someone higher. He should have NOT stopped until someone listened to him. He should have made sure that Jerry Sandusky, even if he was a friend of his, should have been fired and reported as a child abuser. He should have made sure that Jerry went to jail, because it is NEVER, EVER okay to hurt children."
"But he didn't?"
"No. He didn't."
"But did Joe Paterno abuse boys, Mom?"
"Absolutely not. Joe Paterno is not a child abuser, and he never abused the boys. But when he didn't protect them, he hurt them. Adults should ALWAYS protect children, and never hurt them, or allow them to be hurt."
My 9-year old son, who I thought was deeply engrossed in his waffle and the Harry Potter book he was reading, perked up his head.
"Well, why didn't the boys just tell someone?" he asked, very matter-of-factly.
"I don't know, dude. Some of them did tell, but no one listened. Maybe some of them didn't have anyone to tell. Maybe they were scared. Maybe they didn't understand it. Maybe Jerry told them that if they told anyone about it he would hurt them or their parents. Or he would call them liars. Who knows? But you DO know that if anyone EVER tells you to keep a secret from Dad and I, you never should, right? Daddy and I would NEVER be mad at you if you told us something that scared or worried you. Bad guys only say that to make kids scared so they won't tell."
"Duh, Mom. You always tell us that. We would always tell you something."
"I know, dudes."
I continued, "You know, guys, Joe Paterno is not a bad man. But look at what happened to him, and all the other people that got fired, all because they didn't do more to help those kids." My brain scrambled for an analogy that would make it all relevant to their pre-adolescent brains, without having to dwell on the scary, cringe-worthy topic of child sexual abuse.
"Now, what if one of your friends kept bullying a little kid on the playground, and you saw him do it, but you never said anything? What if you thought, 'Well, I'm not the one being the bully, so I should just let it go,' and you kept on letting the little kid get bullied and hurt without telling a teacher? Would that be wrong?"
They both replied quickly, "Yeah."
Then my 11-year old son continued with a question in his voice as he said, "Mom?" and I wasn't sure what more I could say about the topic.
I hate this topic.
It is horrible that parents even have to talk to their kids about this topic.
With hesitation in my voice, I responded, "Yeah?"
"So when's my first basketball practice?"
And just like that, we moved on.
Perhaps we were all a little less innocent than at 7:01 a.m., but we moved on nonetheless.