It was the week for uncomfortable conversations with my 3 oldest children. In the wake of all the coverage of the Steubenville trial and verdict I had several talks with them. Not because I was more shocked by what happened in Steubenville (because, if you’ve been paying attention, this isn’t the first story of it’s kind). Honestly, what kept catching my attention was how fuzzy all these kids (and adults) seemed to be about where the line was. I kept wondering, “Would my kids know what to do if they saw that happening? Do we make our biggest mistakes by just assuming they’ll know right from wrong in whatever situation comes their way? Is that how these kids ended up here?” We never think it will be our kids, who does? But, I have more knowledge than most people about how gray areas of right and wrong can become when you take unsupervised young people and add alcohol. Bad decisions become commonplace then. Bad things happen to the unprotected. Normally personable young men loose their way without guidance.
So, in light of all that, I found myself giving my tender children articles about the trial. Articles about rape and the meaning of consent and lives irrevocably changed. We read about binge drinking and what that was and why it was dangerous. And we talked about how other girls turned on the victim and protected the rapists and why they did that. Why it made them feel safer to do that and why those other girls didn’t have her back, as women should. We covered The Rule: No Means No and how being drunk or wearing “slutty” clothes or even drunkenly coming on to a bunch of different guys wasn’t equal to consent. That you can’t give consent in that condition no matter what you’re saying. Every woman had the right to say no. At ANY time.
I told them that physical relationships of ANY nature are a partnership and any time you don’t have an equally engaged partner on the other side, then you have a problem. Indeed, if, like these young boys, you find yourself putting the moves on a girl who can’t say yes because she’s vomiting in the street, well, you might have lost your soul. We talked about why no one, NO ONE seemed to know that what they were taking pictures of was wrong. We talked about what they should do if, God forbid, they ever found themselves at a party where something like that happened.
We talked about what social media and technology mean in their lives. And how their generation can make mistakes at the speed of light, so they were going to have to face up to more responsibility than previous generations before them. And I had them read these articles, knowing how hard the information was and whether it was too soon, but that I’d be damned if I wasn’t in there curating the information they were going to get eventually anyway.
And after they read it, we also talked about their first instinct when they read about it…the one that demands they disassociate themselves from anything like this by rejecting the entire scenario. They will read this and instinctively reject it by assuring themselves that they could never do anything like that. Well, I don’t think they could either. I mean who thinks of their children as potential rapists.
But after they have that thought, I absolutely assured them that neither that these two boys who are did this thought at 13 years old that they would end up being convicted of rape at 16 years old…so, what happened? That’s where the real difficultly in all of this lies. If they started out as regular kids like you are right now, I asked, what moved the needle? What got them from there to a moment in their lives where they did what they did? That’s the question I wanted them to ask themselves. When we just dismiss these boys as monsters or aberrations we miss the most important part of the equation: how did it happen and what can we do to fix it.
So maybe it’s extreme to have them put themselves in the place of these two boys, but is it easier to imagine them as one of the crowd? That’s the most startling part of all of this for me…NO ONE called for help! How can that be? Somewhere along the way, no one prepared these kids for finding themselves in the middle of a moment that turned south on them. Might one of my boys ever be out with a girl who might have had one too many? Maybe. Could my daughter be at a party and make a mistake about drinking, or watch her friend do it? I hope not, but it’s possible and I want them to know what these kids in Steubenville apparently didn’t.
The middle of a crises is never when you want to have to be figuring out what you’re going to do. I tell them this a lot. You have to plan to do right. You have to have a plan for turning down drugs, for not getting in a car with someone who shouldn’t be driving, for calling for help when things don’t look so good. You have to have a plan to reach out when you’re in over your head. You need to remember that you’re new to literally EVERYTHING and I am your friend in those moments.
This trial felt like the beginning of a lot of revelations about things in the world that I would give almost anything never, ever to have to tell them about. But I will tell them, because not talking about things doesn’t make them go away. I’m a believer in shedding light on the darkest of things. In the end, that’s the only thing that makes the darkness go away. I’m have long dreaded watching them find out about rape, and crimes of war, and the myriad of other atrocities that humanity has dealt out to itself, but those days are coming, and there will be times when I will be inadequate when it comes to providing any kind of context, but I try and remember Mr Rogers telling us to look for the “Helpers” in times of tragedy, and I guess this is my attempt to raise people who will be “Helpers”.
In the end, I hope I will reminded them of the essential humanizing truth: that girl was somebody’s daughter or sister or friend. One day, she’ll probably be someone’s mother too.
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