Lessons from the St. Paul's incident

April 10, 2001|By Susan Reimer

SINCE THE revelations of a little more than a week ago, St. Paul's School for Boys has been trapped in a storm that many must feel will never move offshore.

That storm rages, too, in the hearts and minds of troubled parents and coaches, who wonder what it is they can say to their teen-agers, to their athletes, that will inoculate them against the kind of soulless pranks that have wreaked such havoc here.

Parents and coaches know by frustrating experience that they have the attention of teens for only seconds at a time, and they know instinctively that they cannot compile a list of forbidden acts because the kids are very likely to do something not on that list and say when they are caught, "But you never said we couldn't ... " After all, teen-agers have an abundance of time and energy to think up new ways to flabbergast us.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of St. Paul's coach Mitch Whiteley's name has been corrected for the database. See microfilm for original story.

So what is it that we say to our kids that will prevent them from, say, videotaping sex with a 15-year-old girl and showing it to friends?

What do we say to our daughters, who are apparently in danger of giving in to the sexual advances of a boy only to find out their intimacy has been recorded for the amusement of strangers?

The lesson of the St. Paul's scandal is not: "Don't get caught." Or, "Check for video cameras." It is not, "If you know they are going to be showing homemade porno tapes, stay away."

And we have to be careful, because that is what our children will assume the lessons of this scandal to be.

Those are not the lessons. This is what we have to say to our sons and daughters and to our young athletes:

"Sex is a powerful thing, and you are not nearly mature enough to handle all the aftershocks. Sex is an adult activity, and you are a child. Sex can hurt you in a hundred ways. What happened to the young couple in this story is just one of them."

We can deliver philosophical lectures about self-respect and respect for others and committed relationships, but we will lose the kids about three sentences into it.

We have to keep it simple: "You are too young for sex, and it is my job as your parent to supervise your life to the extent necessary to prevent you from testing the truth of that statement."

To our athletes, we must say this: "Don't do anything with your teammates that you wouldn't want all the mothers and fathers to watch from the bleachers. And if somebody starts something that should never see the light of day - here is the tough part - leave and tell the first adult you see."

You could tell them that this is the right thing to do. And it is. But also tell them this: "An adult will find out. They always do. Because somebody will talk. They always do. And when the adults find out, there will be hell to pay and you will go down with the group."

This might be the most difficult thing we could ask our teens to do: Betray their own kind to an adult. Few will be able to do it. But that should not stop us from telling them, in simple, declarative sentences, that this is our expectation.

There should never be any confusion in the minds of our kids about what we want them to do when they are in a jam like the one in which the St. Paul's players found themselves.

"Get up, walk across the room, pop out the video and give it to the nearest adult."

It will be a rare teen with the courage to do that, but none of our children should leave the house without knowing exactly what we, their parents, expect them to do.

And coaches, tell your team captains what leadership means. That they didn't get those stripes for being the senior, or the most popular, or the one with the best stats. That there is more to being a captain than walking to mid-field to shake hands with the other team's captain and collecting the money for the coach's gift at the end of the season.

That leadership is not about being the one who decides which kid to pick on next, what fresh trouble to get into. That leadership is about making, as St. Paul's did, the hard choices.

And parents, don't assume your child's coach is a pillar of the community and a moral icon, as St. Paul's Mitch Whiteley has revealed himself to be.

One of the truisms of sports is that there are some coaches who are really bad examples of sportsmanship and citizenship, and our young athletes have the advantage of learning that sooner rather than later in life.

Teach your kids to obey the coach on the field but to obey you everywhere else.

What happened at St. Paul's School for Boys is a disaster for so many reasons, and the pain of it will not heal soon for anyone: the girl, the boy, his teammates and the school officials who had to make the difficult decision to cancel a promising lacrosse season, all the while castigating themselves for their undetected failures as teachers and mentors.

And, no less, for the parents who are reeling from this new blow to their sense of well-being.

We will be talking about this incident for months. But let's not get confused about what we should be saying to our kids.

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