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Penn State Scandal Presents a Teachable Moment

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As our children were growing up, we all stumbled upon spontaneous "teachable moments," and those opportunities don't stop because our children are now adults. In their personal and professional lives, they encounter situations that calibrate on the doing-the-right-thing scale from legally correct to being a good person. Often they make those decisions on their own; sometimes they ask our opinion.

The Penn State scandal brings a teachable moment for both our children and us as parents. According to press reports, in 2002 graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed a former coach raping a young boy in the Penn State locker room. His father was the first person he talked to before reporting the assault to head coach Joe Paterno.

What did father advise son? We have no way of knowing, and the facts as reported in the media remain to be proven in a court of law. What we are reminded of, however, is the ongoing advisory role parents play with adult children, especially in times of trouble.

We can only imagine the conversation between McQueary father and son. But surely both realized that by reporting the assault it could impact the younger man's life, and who knows what would have happened if he had gone directly to the police. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who lead the investigation as the state Attorney General, said yesterday Mike McQueary "did not in my opinion meet a moral obligation" in reporting the abuse.

How do young adults make tough decisions? Apparently, moral relativism is a common approach, according to a recent book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adults. The author, a University of Notre Dame sociologist, surveyed young adults about right-and-wrong decision making. He found that many believe that moral choices are up to the individual.

A New York Times article about the young adults interviewed for the book noted:

When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn't enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often," is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. "It's personal," the respondents typically said. "It's up to the individual. Who am I to say?"

The teachable moment for us parents that Penn State drives home is the ongoing role we play to help our children make moral decisions. Most likely, our children will never be confronted with such a horrific situation. Instead they face a thousand cuts of ethical quandaries. We can use this moment to send the message that we'll always try to help them make the right decision, even if it's the one they don't want to hear.