USA Today, December 2, 2003
Pop star's arrest creates tough parenting moment
By Bruce Kluger
were walking home from school when Bridgette
asked, "What's Michael Jackson in trouble for?"
Bridgette, 8, is fairly worldly-wise. We regularly
discuss current events, and in recent years our
chosen topics have swung wildly from 9/11 to gay
rights to the war in Iraq. I find the exercise of
distilling big headlines into child-friendly sound bites
one of the more challenging, and frequently
fulfilling, jobs of being a parent.
But Jackson's child molestation charges threw me for a loop. "Uh, he's in trouble for
bothering someone who didn't want to be bothered," I said to Bridgette, instantly
wincing at how profoundly stupid I sounded. But I pressed on: "So that person
called the police, and the police arrested Jackson."
Bridgette smirked. "You and Mommy bother me sometimes," she said. "Does that
mean I can call the police, too?"
I told Bridgette we'd talk more about Jackson after dinner. We didn't. Embarrassed
as I was at my inability to explain the horror of child molestation—alleged or
otherwise—to Bridgette, I rationalized this failure by convincing myself that I'm not
yet ready to let her know what a perilous world we live in. I cherish my two
daughters' carefree spin on life, in which magic and reality frequently blend like
watercolors. And though the topics we do discuss often touch on very real and
present dangers—especially in the case of the World Trade Center, which was just
downtown from us—from Bridgey's point of view, these are problems for grown-ups
to solve. No matter how sobering the threat, she's concluded, she'll always be safe
beneath the protective watch of her Mom and Dad.
That, of course, isn't the case with child molestation, in which predators and
pedophiles practice the insidious skill of seeking out the unguarded minor. (Most
rape victims are under age 18, according to the FBI.)
That's why, as parents, we can't afford to sidestep the Michael Jackson question
with our kids, especially when we can arm them with the kind of information that can
help protect them from becoming abuse victims themselves. Curiously, amid the
media sensationalism about Jackson, I've been hearing some pretty sound advice.
"If parents are going to be proactive," said adolescent psychologist Nadine Kaslow
on CNN, they must let their children know "that most people take good care of
children and don't hurt people, but that there are some people in the world who
sometimes do bad things."
Kaslow recommended that parents couch the details of molestation in terms of
good and bad. "There's good touch, and there's bad touch," she suggests saying.
"Good touch is wonderful, and bad touch isn't OK. And if you ever feel like you're
experiencing (bad touch), you need to let people know who can protect you."
Yet what of our own anger and anxiety? Whenever I've discussed the Jackson case
with other parents, we're all incredulous that any mother or father would voluntarily
place his or her kids in such a potentially dangerous environment.
To that end, Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, addressed the
Jackson situation in a way that unexpectedly appealed to the parent in me—with
compassion. "In a psychological sense," Butterworth said on CNBC, "here's Michael
Jackson, an American tragedy. From the biography, we know that he was, in a
sense, imprisoned at home. He didn't have a childhood. This poor man is stuck in
some phase. And, as a result, there are tragedies all around—both in his life and
for, apparently, people who he touches."
Absorbing Kaslow's and Butterworth's comments, I talked to Bridgette the next day
about good and bad touch and the safety of family. I also told her that if Jackson is
proved guilty, she might feel both mad and sad about it at the same time. And that's
Bridgette listened carefully, but asked no questions. Instead, she changed the
subject. No surprise there. I've learned that, like most kids, she was downloading
the information and processing it at her own rate. The conversation will
(Photograph of Michael Jackson by Kevork Djansezian/AP.)