We can take away several lessons from the tragedy unfolding at Penn State's football program. Former coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with about 40 counts of sexual misconduct. Two other highly-placed college officers are charged with perjury for their role in covering up Sandusky's deeds. And it's likely to get worse as more victims will probably come forward.
Long-time head coach, the legendary Joe Paterno, will be retired after this season. When many college football programs are plagued with blatant disregard for regulations and players' lawlessness, Paterno was known for keeping his staff and students straight. Football, after all, is more than just a game. Right?
Parents and children's caregivers should take away at least these four lessons:
First, learn something about the other adults in your child's life. Teachers, coaches, clergy, nannies, babysitters, tutors, whoever. Most adults who work with children mean all the best and are good people. A few are not. You can talk with them about their motivation for working with children, but more importantly pay attention to this person's behavior. Specific behaviors to watch out for include an eagerness to spend special time with your child, excessive and/or expensive gifts to the child, reluctance to have you present when they are with your child, and ignoring clear boundaries and exhibiting defensiveness when it's brought up. They may know your child's tastes and preferences better than you do, and exploit that.
Second, teach your child. Make sure they understand the difference between "telling" for safety and "tattling," as abusers try to keep kids quiet. Talk on a regular basis with your child about good and bad touch, and how to tell. Emphasize that there are no secrets allowed. Strategic Living's KidSafe classes work with children and their parents on age-appropriate skills to stay out of harm's way without arousing fear.
Third, listen to your child. And learn to listen without always expressing judgment. Often children do not tell because they fear they will be blamed and punished (and abusers encourage this view). Sometimes children won't say anything, but their behavior screams that something's wrong.
Finally, say something. Report. This can be very difficult. Mr. Sandusky's targets were young boys from disadvantaged homes, who are less likely to report and involve the police. Sometimes parents do not wish to further traumatize a child by reporting (a good advocacy organization, such as the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, help families through the process). Even if you do your legal duty by reporting to someone in greater authority, as Coach Paterno did, consider if you truly satisfied your moral obligation to follow through.
Because we know what it takes for evil to flourish.