June 21st, 2016
Many of you will have read the account of the rape of a girl by a young male athlete from Stanford University recently. The girl had attended the same party as her assailant and had drunk a considerable amount. So much, that she was not conscious when the assault occurred.
The case has attracted a lot of attention, partly because of the manner in which the defence was conducted, because of a letter from the boy’s father begging for clemency because the boy had such a bright future ahead of him, and partly because of the eventual leniency of the sentence, just 6 months. The family, the legal team and (it would appear) the judge excused the behaviour on account of the defendant’s promising future. What about the girl’s future?
Parents reading the account will, no doubt, have had strong reactions, whether you have sons or daughters or your children are still much younger than this boy or are in the later teenage years. Most parents who’ve spoken to me about this case are appalled at the manner of the young defendant, his legal team and his father when he suggested to the judge that his son should not have his promising career as a swimmer jeopardised by “20 minutes of action.” So it begs the question what should this dad have done? What should we do when our children are in the wrong? This is a most difficult position for a parent to be in and one where we have to be courageous and live out our values if we are to really help our children at the eleventh hour. As much as we might think we have communicated our values to our children they will still do wrong sometimes. It also prompts the further question, how do we prevent situations like this arising in the first place?
For the record I have been in that unenviable position (albeit in a minor way) of receiving that most unwanted call from the school. When my son was very young he hit another child in the playground and caused a nose-bleed. He was suspended from school. It didn’t feel minor at the time.
We are usually quick to judge other parents and you might think that I had not brought my son up with proper values about using force. Well, we thought we had. But he was 7 or 8 years old and very impulsive. His self-esteem was low, with an as yet undiagnosed learning difficulty and he regularly felt humiliated at school. That does not excuse the behaviour but it did serve to explain it and to direct our strategies. When we excuse we do nothing. When we seek to explain we are trying to understand it. His upbringing was of course still a work in progress; he was still learning. And to be frank at that stage my husband and I were not particularly skilled. This episode was one of the catalysts that sent us to take a parenting course that transformed our lives!
How do you pass on the values that you really care about to your children? How do you equip them with those standards that would allow them by the time they go to university to know how to behave toward a drunken girl at a party and for those values to be so embedded that they would guide your child’s actions even if he was drunk himself?
Parents model those values I hear you say. Of course this is a really big part of how we pass on our values. But the father of this aspiring undergraduate may never have assaulted anyone in front of his son. Our values get passed on in much more basic ways when they are much younger. While the boy in this case may not have witnessed outright physical violence in his own family, what did he absorb about respecting others generally and particularly toward women, did his parents discipline him by using force when he was young and was he held accountable for his actions growing up? In particular as his sporting prowess grew was he put on a pedestal and excused certain behaviours?
In Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent book Ringleaders and Sidekicks she talks about how being a top athlete gives a boy exalted status and how those talented sportsmen are often not held to account for their actions. I enjoyed her story of a wise coach who observed such behaviours in one of his team. When the team was travelling interstate for a match this particular boy pushed to the front of the queue when boarding the plane. This behaviour may not seem like much in itself but it is a small example of thinking oneself better than others. The coach took the unusual action of making the boy apologise to all the passengers in the cabin over the public address system. When adults take steps over small behaviours the values get embedded.
We parents pass on our values when:
When children get things wrong it isn’t effective to get mad at them but we do need to hold them accountable. At The Parent Practice we recommend The Mistakes Process which helps kids recognise why what they did wasn’t a good thing to do and to make amends for it. We believe in redemption. When our children do something wrong we want to forgive them but forgiveness depends on there being genuine remorse. That is much more likely when parents discipline without anger and judgment.
So what should this dad have done? Of course he should have stood by his son. But that doesn’t mean condoning or trying to excuse his behaviour. He should have supported his boy to take responsibility for his actions, like a man. And we know that would have taken a great deal of courage. But if the father can show it, maybe the son can too.
In what ways were you held accountable as a child? How have you required your children to make amends? Do share your stories with us.
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