John Kass, a much admired feature columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote an article on the Penn State sex predator scandal, titled “Thankful to be the Worst Mom in the World”. It was a response to a previous article he’d written about the particular way in which predators often target the “children of single moms overwhelmed and desperate for a strong male role model for their kids.”
In short, a reader named Susan Francis had contacted Kass and shared an episode from her grown son’s childhood: she refused to allow a sport’s coach to give her son private pitching lessons based on a negative gut feeling she had about the man. Her 10-year old, in response, cried, refused to speak with her, and called her “the worst mom in the world”. Fast forward, twenty years later, this man was arrested for child molestation.
All of us with parenting experience, single or not, are inevitably anointed “world’s worst” when invoking the parental prerogative for one reason or another, and all of us would agree that protecting the welfare of our children supersedes the need to be considered their best-buddy. The clarity of judgment necessary, however, to act on negative gut instincts isn’t always crystalline, especially in a particularly tricky area of child abuse when the perpetrator isn’t an adult, but rather another member of the child’s peer group.
We may have diminished the seriousness of the problem, by giving it a different label. “Bullying” is still a form of child abuse so insidiously common that most of us bear some form of scarring from our own years of youth.
I know, for example, a young man in his late twenties, an accomplished martial artist who can bench press a staggering amount of weight; he stands 6-foot-2, served in a special ops unit of the IDF, and has been employed as a body guard/escort for Jewish families living in East Jerusalem. You’d never imagine him as a school yard target, and yet he once ended up in an emergency room during his sophomore year of high school; he’d been pummeled by an upperclassman over an off-hours dispute regarding use of the school’s basketball court. None of the onlooking students were willing to intercede, none reported the incident to school authorities, and none were willing to step forward as witnesses.
There was a policeman filling out a report; he wanted to know if I’d be willing to press charges.
I know this because the victim was my son. When I arrived at the emergency room where he’d gone for treatment, there was a policeman filling out a report; he wanted to know if I’d be willing to press charges. If you think that was an easy choice, I’d ask you to think again; the school was a reputable Jewish school and the bully was the son of a prominent rabbi, educator and leader within my Jewish community. For over a decade I’ve second-guessed the decision not to press charges but was still deemed “world’s worst” mom for confronting school authorities and demanding action.
“Don’t you know,” my son shouted, “that this is only going to make things worse for me?”
And he was right. It was a high price to pay, and ultimately my son transferred to a different school, but that was the end of the high school’s basketball bully. He’d been abusing other students off court for years under the protection of family status and the common refrain of a song we all know so well, “boys will be boys.” The choir only changed its mind when confronted with the possibility of a law suit.
But let’s not be naïve. It’s not just boys and it’s not just schoolyards. Girls are some of the cruelest perpetrators of emotional abuse towards their peers, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are the newest venues for psycho-social torment. Your child can be easily targeted even if you implement the strictest parental oversight of their internet presence because you can never control the internet activity of others.
Times have changed. My youngest son’s school now offers sensitivity training at the elementary grade level with a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying. But it’s not enough. It will always fall to the parents to be proactive in protecting their children from the various forms of abuse and perpetrators who are not always strangers and not always adults.
I have, like Susan Francis, offended my own children in attempting to protect their best interests. I’ve repeatedly worn the title of “Worst Parent in the World,” which I inherited from my own parents, God bless them. I hope to pass it down at some point to a new generation. In the words of heavyweight prize fighter, Jack Dempsey, “The best defense is a good offense.”