The conviction this week of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, for raping a 16 year-old girl will lead many parents to ask themselves serious questions. After a night of drinking, the two players and the girl ended up in the basement of somebody’s house. The girl woke up the next morning naked, unsure of what had happened. Photos were taken of her apparently passed out. She was raped in a car on the way to the house and in the basement. The boys were convicted and will remain in prison until they’re 21.
As the parent of a teenage son, this case forces me to think carefully about how I’m raising him. How much privacy do teenagers need to feel we respect their judgment? How do basically decent kids end up in the situation like that in Steubenville? What can we do to protect our own teenagers from making such disastrous and heartless choices?
Teens and Privacy
Teens deserve opportunities to demonstrate their independence, but they’re still kids. I’m wondering, of course, how the teenagers got access to so much alcohol in several locations that night. I’m wondering, too, where the parents were at these parties. It’s a great idea to be the home where our teen’s friends like to come, but we don’t want our home to be the home where they go to hide. Philip and I have a very welcoming attitude with Aidan’s friends in our home. He’s never had a group of boys and girls together, always only boys. We want them to know we like having them here and that we see them as individual, interesting people, not a group of boys. Obviously we would never provide them with alcohol or let them bring it in. Did the Steubenville parents just look the other way because these were football stars, or were they not around at all? Did they care?
We give Aidan and his pals some level of privacy so they can enjoy themselves, but we always know where they are in the house and what they’re doing. Their hangout spot is in our office right next to the family room. We check in on them regularly to bring them snacks, and to ensure they know we’re around. Aidan and his pals have sleepovers at our house once a month. My husband Philip stays up until they’re going to bed, not only to keep an eye on them, but he likes the movies and games they play!
While we would never leave this group of kids unsupervised at night, when this same group of boys is here during the day, I do leave on occasion with my younger children to run errands. I wouldn’t hesitate to leave my teenager home alone, but it does occur to me now that I consider the dynamics of teen relationships that I might choose in the future not to permit gatherings in my home with Aidan’s friends if I don’t plan being present in the house the entire time. When I think about these boys it’s difficult for me to believe anything unthinkable would happen, but at the very least I plan to discuss this issue with the parents of Aidan’s friends.
If at some point, girls enter the picture and we’re looking at hosting a group of boys and girls together, we’ll have to talk with Aidan about our expectations and values. I cannot imagine we’d ever allow girls in a room with the boys with the door closed. Seems not much good could come from that much privacy. While we trust Aidan, we don’t want to put him in a situation that’s more than he could handle.
Start with Connection Protection
So, obviously, appropriate supervision is essential. Let’s not forget teens also need a healthy connection to their families. It’s easy for parents with lots of children to sort of forget that teenagers need intensive parenting and care just like the little ones; it’s just a different kind of care. We need to nurture our connection with our teens so they know they can come to us with their concerns. We, the parents — not our teen’s friends — need to be our teen’s go-to people when it comes to knowing what is right and what to do in hard situations.
Ensuring our teen remains part of our family routine and rituals – regular family dinner gatherings, game nights, outings, and family projects – can foster his sense of belonging in our family and identifying with our deepest values. Including him in discussions about some family decisions can help him feel respected. Maintaining a lighthearted attitude with teens is especially important. They often like connecting with us through joking around or even play fighting.
By maintaining our rapport with our teens, we make it more likely they’ll internalize our values and that at the very least they’ll talk to us if they’re considering or witnessing risky behavior.
Lessons in Virtue
Of course, if teenagers want to drink they’ll find a place to do it. I remember some kids when I was growing up taking bottles of liquor into the bushes in our neighborhood to hang out and drink. Worse, if teenagers are intent on having sex or raping somebody, there’s not much we can do to stop them unless we lock them in the house. We have to raise them so that they don’t want to do these things.
If your teenager is old enough to discuss this case, it might provide an opportunity to talk about some big issues. We’re all pretty sure our kids would never get themselves into this kind of situation. Unfortunately, when teenagers start drinking, a pack mentality can set in, and they will sometimes do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. If they want to fit in, they’ll go along with the crowd. Peer pressure is awful for teenagers. Talk to your teen about why drinking is illegal for teens and what alcohol does to the body, especially the brain.
This case also demonstrates the importance of guiding our children in several virtues. Chastity is the big one. Living in dignity and respecting the dignity of another person is essential to the Christian call. Living a wholesome lifestyle and resisting pornography and immodest dress is unpopular in teen culture, but we have to have that talk. In addition, a healthy attitude toward sex is important. Our teens should know that they can’t rely on popular culture’s attitude toward sex as a guideline for their behavior. The Theology of the Body teaches us that we should never use another human being to satisfy our own needs or desires. Popular culture preaches self-centered pleasure seeking no matter the cost.
Courage requires us to do the right thing even when it’s hard. Hopefully if our kids walked in on the scene in that basement they would have the courage to speak up, or at least get an adult to intervene. Providing opportunities for our child to practice moral courage when they’re younger is critical. If they hurt somebody, require them to make amends and make the situation right, whatever that takes. If they see one of their friends feeling left out or being picked on, help your child be the one to step in to right the wrong.
Mercy is the ability to enter into the chaos of another. I think empathy is closely tied to the virtue of mercy. Empathy is our ability to feel and understand the emotions and pain of another person. What does that other person really need? It’s easy to assume we know, but if we are empathic, and really take the time to enter the person’s emotional chaos, what they really need is often different from what we originally assumed. One of the football players in the case said he “took care of the girl” when she was drunk. What does that mean? Did he put a coat over her after he raped her? The facts of the case demonstrate the chaos involved: the emotional and cultural chaos that led to the rape, and the resulting chaos of regret and pain. Perhaps we can talk to our teen about what might be acceptable and safe options if they ever see somebody incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.
Many discussions need to ensue from what happened in Steubenville, not only between parents and their teens, but between parents themselves, clergy and parents, and schools and parents. But starting within our own domestic church by forming our children’s hearts and collecting them in our arms is a good place to start.
Photo credit: Jupiter Images (photos.com)