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BLOG: Explaining Penn State to a 4-year-old

If you're having trouble wrapping your mind around what is happening at Penn State, just try explaining it to a 4-year-old.

A conversation this morning with my 4-year-old.

I stepped out of the car for 30 seconds, just long enough for our 4-year-old daughter to hear the beginning of NPR's report from Penn State University, where for five days the horrific details of a child-sex-abuse scandal and cover-up have been brought to light.

Late Wednesday night, the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno were removed by the school's Board of Trustees. Students and members of the community took to the streets to protest. Now our 4-year-old was hearing the details. I turned off the radio, and this is what came next:

4-year-old: Daddy?

Me: Yes?

4-year-old: Are they talking about football?

Me: Yes.

4-year-old: Where?

Me: At Penn State.

4-year-old: Is that who we saw play the Hawkeyes in field hockey?

Me: It is.

4-year-old: What's happening?

Me: Where?

4-year-old: What's happening at Penn State?

Me: Well, a lot of people are in trouble. And their football coach can't coach there anymore.

4-year-old: The old one?

Me: Yes.

4-year-old: What did he do? He can't be their coach anymore?

Me: Right.

4-year-old: What did he do?

Thinking ... thinking ... thinking ...

4-year-old: Daddy, what did he do?

Me: Well, he knew someone was doing something really bad, and he didn't do enough to stop it.

4-year-old: What did someone do that was really bad?

Me: Uh, well, um ... steering focus back to Paterno ... The coach knew that someone was doing something bad, so he told someone about it, but he didn't tell enough people about it. He could have made sure the bad person got in trouble, but instead he didn't do anything.

4-year-old: Did he tell someone?

Me: Yes, he told someone.

4-year-old: Why is he in trouble?

Me: Because he could have done more to help. He could have done A LOT more to help, and he didn't. So now he can't coach anymore.

4-year-old: Why?

Me: Because it's our job -- it's everyone's job -- to do the right thing and help people, and when you don't do that, sometimes you get in trouble.

4-year-old: Is Marvin McNutt younger than (Marcus) Coker?

Me: No. Marvin McNutt is older.

4-year-old: Oh. ... So the old person isn't the coach anymore?

Me: No, not anymore.

4-year-old: Oh.

Pause

4-year-old:Why?

Me: Because he didn't help when he should have.

4-year-old: Did anybody else get in trouble?

Me: Yes.

4-year-old: Why?

Me: Why what?

4-year-old: Why did they get in trouble?

Me: For the same reason, honey. They all knew there was someone doing something really bad, and nobody stopped him.

4-year-old: Why did nobody stop him?

Me: I don't know, honey.

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Angie November 10, 2011 at 05:22 PM
I've been nervous that we'll have the same sort of conversation, given my NPR-listening habits and the curious minds of my 7- and 4-year-olds. I really want to listen to the commentary, but have been turning it down when the kids are in the car. You did a good job.
Emily C November 10, 2011 at 06:19 PM
I agree with Angie, very nicely handled. As a side note, it's interesting that conversations with my 4-year-old go almost exactly like this. Lots of why, a few totally random questions/comments, then back to the "big" topic. Anyway, I can't listen to NPR in the car anymore. I feel like back in the day, they talked about discovering new planets and life forms and interesting information about people and places and things. Now it's war and death and unspeakable acts every time I turn it on, and I hate listening to it, much less explaining it to my kids. Maybe it's always been this way and I'm more sensitive now. It's nicer to just talk to them, anyway.
Stephen Schmidt November 10, 2011 at 06:45 PM
Dave, I think your daughter would have done a better job than some journalists did at the Penn State Board of Trustees press conference last night :)
Dave Schwartz November 10, 2011 at 06:48 PM
Wasn't that pathetic? What bothers me the most is that media from outside Pennsylvania did a great job with the story. It was the locals, who are too close to Paterno apparently, who were out of hand. But that's all the public saw: a bunch of idiots screaming about conspiracies and supposed injustices.
B.A. Morelli November 10, 2011 at 08:00 PM
One "journalist" tried to pin down the trustee by saying something like 'isn't it true you've been gunning for Paterno since 2004 and you were just waiting for something like this to come along so you can get rid of him. That's what my source told me.' Geez... amateur hour.

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