The Penn State Scandal: What’s A Parent To Think And Do?

As the details surrounding the Penn State scandal continue to emerge, I’ve been wrestling (both as a professional and as a parent) to make sense of it all. What weighs most heavily on my mind is that this is a situation where all parents must feel violated to some degree. Repeated sexual abuse of young boys happened at a terrific university, under the watch of a revered coach who was known for his moral standards as much as his winning program. Esteemed members of the university are accused of not acting on information and not trying to prevent further harm to youth. This seems surreal – State College is a very pleasant town, to the extent that people near and far refer to the area as “Happy Valley.” I know all of this first-hand, as I spent four years at Penn State pursuing and receiving my doctoral degree.

What are we to think and do when our most trusted people and institutions haven’t done the right thing? As parents, we go out of our way to place children in safe situations. If a child has an opportunity to spend time with professionals we admire and trust, a parent is going to think that this is a great thing. And if a child is troubled, we’d be delighted that an organization run by someone we believe to be trustworthy would be there to take an interest. 

To me, the real scandal here is that trusted figures did not do what they should have done when one of their own committed unthinkable acts. It’s difficult to admit, but the reality is that there are people in the world who do bad things to kids. They’re out there, and we parents don’t have the ability to follow our kids every second of the day. That said, part of what we do is put our trust in institutions rather than just one person – it’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best we can do. And when we learn about something like the Penn State scandal – when we find out that the most trusted individuals in the highest leadership positions did not do what they should have done to protect children – our faith is shaken.

Where does this leave us as parents? I don’t want to start doubting the trustworthiness of my child’s school. I don’t want to run criminal checks on her teachers, coaches, instructors, and other adults in her life. I don’t want to discourage her from experiencing the world or make her afraid of adults. But I do think I need to convey – as a parent speaking to my child – that although we trust all the adults in our world, and we respect them, if you ever feel that an adult is not treating you right, or is making you feel uncomfortable, or is doing anything you think is weird or unusual, you need to get yourself away from that adult. Immediately. You can trust your parents to go to the right people at the institutional level, and we will assume that they will handle it rapidly and professionally. But if for some reason they don’t, your parents will do everything they need to do to make sure you – and other children – remain safe. You can, and should, always trust your parents.



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  1. by Heather Wilson

    On November 10, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    This is a recently published book that provides a bit of gentle guidance in speaking to your kids about the very sensitive topic of sexual abuse.

  2. by MOMMBY Mom

    On November 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    I am saddened by the Penn State scandal. It is another reminder we as parents need to take action to protect our kids to the best of our ability. Please refer to for more information.

  3. by Zelena

    On November 12, 2011 at 7:33 am

    I believe we have put athletes and the world of sports in a place of awe. WE the people have allowed celebrity to cloud better judgement. Children are no exception to the 24 hour marketing done by the media and manufacturers of everything. Parenting has become increasingly less important to people who buy into everything that comes down the pike for sale. In fact, being a parent is the most important thing anyone can endeavor. It is difficult at times but the rewards far outweigh the rest. When adults shirk responsibilities to protect those tender,vulnerable children the whole as a society is damaged. Not only then but also into our futures. First comes love then responsibility. Title and celebrity cannot compete when they become less important than maturity. I believe we are talking about fathers and sons, in fact, that no longer saw the importance of responsablility to the innocent. Offences were allowed to hide beneath the cloud of awe, celebrity, and job importance; all things not mature or responsible. Surely coaches wouldn’t want their children or grand children to be faced with the same as the children left alone with a pedophile had to face? We aren’t talking about titles we will never be talking about titles when humans are at stake. We are looking at men who made their decisions to throw humans albeit children to the lion. That is what they are judged by not their title or celebrity that seems very very tarnished at the moment.

  4. by jay

    On November 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    As parents we teach water safety and road safety to our kids. Just as importantly we need to teach body safety. Parents and the community in general (including schools) need to understand that talking to their children about body safety will not rob kids of their innocence but it could actually alert them if anything was to happen. Sexual abuse prevention is a very important part of parenting.
    How can we get this message across? How can we stop the block? The more we DON’T talk about body safety with our kids the more the perpetrators thank us for it. Maybe we need a celebrity such as Oprah to make this message palatable to parents.It is so important! Forewarned is forearmed. I am the author of the book mentioned by Heather and I have to say i wrote it because of this ‘block’ in my own community. I wrote it so it was non-threatening to parents, so they would feel very comfortable reading it to their kids. I wrote it out of desperation, really. We can and must teach our kids body safety. But we ALL need to be on board.
    But how do we get the whole community on board?

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  6. by Greg Cis

    On November 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    The whole this is one gigantic mess and I feel for the poor kids and those who lost their jobs.

  7. by Denise

    On June 27, 2012 at 10:32 am

    You know, I have thought hard on the scandal at Penn State, and as a parent, I am more angry with the parents of these abused children. First: When did running errands and other unimportant things become more important than your children! What parent leaves their children at practices alone, or to travel clear across the country at age 8 with their coach to a sporting event. Whatever happened to BEING there for your children. I NEVER once left my kids at any practices or events alone. Second: As parents we have a goal to protect our children, and one is to KNOW our children. You mean to tell, me these parents didn’t notice sudden behavior changes, or didn’t they ever take the time to notice. Third: What young adult at age 27, is going to keep letting an adult abuse them? Come on! Yes, there is fault with the fact, that NO ONE looked into the allegations. I mean from the top position down, I’m sure a lot more people knew about it.
    I’m glad this scandal had come about, for if it wasn’t for the scandal, how many more abuse cases would have gone unnoticed. Look at the can of worms it opened up across the United States, but you know, you never hear anymore about them, ONLY Penn State’s scandal. How about the Coach at Syracuse University? Haven’t heard anymore about that one! Parents need to be more involved in their kids activities, and less into themselves, remember you have grownup, our children are our future.

  8. by Ellie Fergon

    On June 27, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I think another big issue that i see repeated in most of these cases- is that the adult threatens the child if he/she says anything. this alone needs to be addressed with your own child. as a new parent i’m not even sure how to address this… but i think honesty is key and if you communicate openly and honestly with your child, HOPEFULLY this will be addressed and they will not trust the abusers words but their own parents. it is a situation i hope i never have to deal with but i pray that when the time comes i prepare my own child in the best way possible.

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