Sins of the Father: A lesson in how not to protect children
Brock N. Meeks, First published in MSNBC News, December 1997
BEFORE GOD, country and network TV, the council trotted out a 14-year-old to confess his “sin” of having glimpsed naked ladies on the Internet while at school. But not before the kid’s parents — with two smaller siblings standing by — verbally skewered a school system that allows kids unfiltered Internet access.

Though this family willingly gave their full names, including that of their son, as they stood before a room full of reporters and cameras, I’m going to leave them anonymous.

"My wife and I have prayed that if our children did something they were not supposed to do, they would get caught,” said the father. “Well, the Lord answers prayers and our son was caught,” the father intoned.

The offense: viewing porn on the Net. The self-righteous parents said this was their son’s “first exposure” to pornography and that they were “shocked and appalled” that it occurred at school via the Internet.

While the cameras focused on the parents, the kid stood motionless, each revelation driving another emotional spike into his psyche. As he stared at the ground, I tried to imagine what was going through this kid’s head. I didn’t have to imagine for long.

The father called his son to the podium to make his own statement! And there, like a criminal being made to stand before a judge handing out a sentence, the kid mumbled how wrong he had been and that “I agree with all my Dad said.”

I half expected the kid to just go for it and spill his guts: “All right, I admit it! I also accessed the Democratic National Committee site. My mind filled with liberalism and I gave all my lunch money to a homeless man.” No such luck. The kid just slunk away and took his place in the family lineup.

After this fiasco, I spoke to Vic Sussman, a friend of mine and top-notch cyberspace reporter in his own right. He was just as stunned. We tried to decide how many years it would be before this kid ended up climbing a clock tower with a hunting rifle and picking off unsuspecting citizens while the local TV interviewed horrified neighbors and friends all saying, “But he was always such a quiet and polite boy.”

Oh, I hear some of you yelling at me. “Wait, you trotted out your own son in this very column talking about how he accessed porn on America Online!”

Very true, but very different. You don’t know my son’s name, I didn’t hang him out to dry for the 6 o’clock news and I certainly didn’t berate him or imply that his natural God-given inclination was somehow wrong. I talked to him, honestly and openly.

At first I thought perhaps I was being too harsh on this family for publicizing the boy’s actions, so I sought expert advice. “If this father believes this is a way to correct his son’s behavior, he has a very distorted view of caring and loving parenting,” says Nancy Faulkner, who has a Ph.D in counseling psychology and knows a few things about parenting and caring. Faulkner is an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and her efforts to keep sexual predators off the Net are tireless. She has 15 years of clinical experience, having worked as the director of a mental health outreach facility and program administrator for an adolescent psychiatric in-patient program.

So, what’s the damage here? “This public humiliation is very likely to either induce tremendous rage,” Faulkner said, “and/or dramatically impact his self-esteem and self-concept in a negative direction. Something he will undoubtedly remember for life.”

To get a second opinion I asked another expert: my 14-year-old son. “I’d kill you if you tried that on me,” he said, “or you’d have to kill me to get me in front of that camera.” And then he added, “They probably paid him a ton of money.” Ah, my little skeptic, wonder where he gets that?

So here’s the bottom line. Often under the banner of “protect the children” the kids are the very ones who get ignored or pushed aside, all in the name of grabbing headlines or furthering an agenda.

Perhaps the father in this story should spend more time talking to his son rather than praying he’ll be caught doing something wrong. Or one day he may find his son has a sudden affinity for hunting rifles and high places.

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