Men Rethink Boundaries Of Mentoring

In light of the child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, host Michel Martin explores the challenges of mentoring and how that role is changing. She speaks with a diverse panel of mentors: two fathers and a young journalist.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And if you are a parent, you probably already thought about this. You want and need more adults in your kids' life than just you. Which means coaches, and teachers, and mentors with whom they may become close. It is also the case that some of these relationships will require or permit these adults to touch your kids. Whether to correct a baseball swing or a proper tackle position, or even just to comfort a child after a bad day.

But unfortunately, after the scandal – like the one unfolding at Penn State, where a trusted coach and mentor is accused of molesting young kids entrusted to his care. Many parents and mentors might be skittish about just how they should handle this right now. So we wanted to talk about it, even though we recognize that this may be an uncomfortable subject for some listeners. So this might be a good opportunity, if this is the case, to turn away for just a few minutes. Joining us to talk about this, is Bamoni Armah. He is a poet and a teacher. He wrote about how the Penn State scandal is affecting his thinking of job as a teacher and a mentor. He's also the father of five year old twin boys.

Also with us, Phil Lerman. He produced a program, "America's Most Wanted," for 15 years. He's the author of the book, "Daditude." He has a nine year old son. And also with us, Malik Washington. He has mentored boys and girls. He is an intern at TELL ME MORE, as you probably know if you listen the credits on Thursdays. But he's been a mentor since his college days when he was a resident advisor. And he - they're all here with us now. Welcome gentleman. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PHIL LERMAN: Thank you.

BOMANI ARMAH: Thank you.

MALIK WASHINGTON: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Bamoni, I'm gonna start with you. Many people will – may remember you from – you have this very provocative cartoon that you did called "Read A Book," but you have a whole other life as a teacher, as a poet, as a mentor. And you wrote about, on your – ah, your web page about an incident where you were working with a young boy. A lot of the people who you work with are kids who don't necessarily have other positive, male, adult role models in their lives. You wrote about a situation that you had with a child, with whom you've been working, who needs some roughhousing in his life. He's being raise by his grandmother and he needs some roughhousing. So, tell us what happened – tell us what happened and why you wrote about it.

ARMAH: Well yeah, so what happens is, we're having a normal evening and kid jumps on my back. And I can't remember what we were arguing about, something silly. And what I do is instinctually reach over my shoulder and grab him and I pull him over me. And when that happens, another kid who's about 15, said Penn State really loud. And it made me freeze. Like - 'cause I've been thinking about the whole Penn State incident from a whole bunch of different angles. And I like writing about things like this – either in poetry or something like that. And I try to find the angle and that was the angle right there – was that he had assaulted my well being, my lifestyle, my chosen profession. That now I'm like the Kaiser Soze in this line of possible pedophiles. And it's not a good place to be in. And then, you know, you try to understand the mentality and start thinking like, how do you stay out of those type of situations.

MARTIN: Well, you wrote about this. You said that this was an extended part of the assault that Sandusky has perpetuated on all of us. And Jerry Sandusky being that coach that we talked about – that Penn State coach who is oh – who is accused of, has been indicted by a grand jury in connection with molesting at least eight boys over a 15 year period. So when you say he's perpetuated this assault on all of us. You mean what?

ARMAH: Well, I mean, for all intents and purposes we're in the same business. I'm trying to have more access to young people so I can affect their lives positively – either through getting grants to do it or doing my workshops, or doing my performances, or creating videos. Whatever I'm doing, I'm trying to get the attention of 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds, and get them to reveal themselves, to be artists and talk about what's going on in their lives. So sometimes that puts them in vulnerable positions with me. And so, we're gonna get close that way. And that shadow of oh you always have to look out for someone being a pedophile is real, and I understand it too, because I'm a father and I have children that are going to start doing martial arts and gymnastics and everything. And I'm gonna have to trust them in the hands of another adult. And so – and I haven't been able to come to a conclusion as to how to make myself feel better about it.

And like the whole idea of what I wrote, was just showing how great it is, as far as, you know, figuring out what the best – best strategy or best attitude to have toward those situations.

MARTIN: Phil, what about you? You worked on the show "America's Most Wanted" for 15 years. So unfortunately, this would not be the first time that you would have thought about predators. You know, unfortunately, your work has caused you to think about predators...

LERMAN: We dealt with...

MARTIN: ...and how they operate, right. But you're also a parent and a coach. So how have you over the years, you know, dealt with this question?

LERMAN: Well, we did on the show deal with unfortunately, hundreds and hundreds of cases, from people who molested two-year-olds all the way up to people who molested teenagers; boys, girls. I happen to be back at the show right now for a short time helping them produce a special, and the number of child molester cases that are presented to me that I have to choose between is overwhelming.

And you have to look at the positive side of all of this. What this has done - Bomani's absolutely right - it's made us all uncomfortable. It has made it so difficult for everybody who is trying to do good things with children. It also gives us a chance to talk to our kids. And, you know, I have a – my stepdaughter is 23 now. She's in college. That poor kid. Every time a kid went missing anywhere in America she had to hear about it. And we had it very conversational over the dinner table and it wasn't, I have to tell you this, but just very conversational - another kid went missing today. Here's what she did right, here's what she did wrong. This is a good - my stepdaughter was one of the only girls in her class who knew what to do if you get locked in the trunk of a car.

So what we did with all of these situations is as a parent, as a step-parent and now as a parent, tried to use them as a chance to have the conversations that we all want to have with our children and we don't know how to have with our children, but we need practice and we need impetus.

MARTIN: OK. Good. Good.

LERMAN: And practice as you go along. The impetus comes from incidents like these.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Phil, hold that thought for a minute, because I want to hear what some of those kinds of conservations, because I think it would be helpful for people to give them a script in a way. So hold that thought for a minute and then I want to bring, and tell us where some of the conversations that you can comfortably have or that you should be having whether it's comfortable or not.

Malik, I'm going to start with you. I'm going to ask you because you're kind of relatively new to the game. And the other reason I was interested in talking with you, because you are a young man, you're not too far out of those teen years yourself when you might have been vulnerable yourself, or the target of somebody who might be a predator. So I'd like to ask when you decided to be a mentor yourself...

WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...were there some guidelines that you were given or some thoughts that go through your head about how you should approach this situation so that you can be as helpful as you'd like to be but not cross the line...

WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...or teach a child to protect himself or herself?

WASHINGTON: Well, unfortunately, I don't think that there has been any guidelines that have been given. All the guidelines that, you know, that I had in different arenas were all legal guidelines; guidelines to protect the organization that I worked for or the university that I worked for. But that really doesn't get into how we should interact with kids when we're mentoring. And I've always been very cautious in how I interact with kids, whether it be in a teaching setting or monitoring. You know, I always try not to initiate contact. You know, if a kid comes up and hugs me, that's fine but I try not to do that, only because of the way that it's perceived. And it's very unfortunate because as been stated, I mean we're dealing with kids a lot of times who don't get this type of intimacy or attention from anywhere else. So I think it is very blurry.

Like Bomani said, it's gray. And but I don't want to get into the position. I think a lot of times in the act of trying to protect ourselves, not only do we limit what we can provide for these children, but we also tend to kind of - in our attempt to kind of under-sexualize situations we almost kind of over-sexualize it. And what I mean by that is, you know, when you stop hugging in the workplace, when you stop hugging in the school because you're fearful of how that may be perceived by the person who is receiving the hug or by somebody who is witnessing it, you're almost adding a sexual undertone to an act that I believe 90 percent of people don't believe is sexual. And we end up doing this in the way that we interact with kids on all levels.

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, let me just - and if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about mentoring with three men who have experience as mentors. A couple of them are also parents. We're talking about how to fulfill that role in a positive and safe way in the wake of the unfolding Penn State scandal, where a trusted coach and mentor is accused of molesting young boys who were entrusted to his care. And we're talking about how people who want to have positive and safe relationships can handle that role appropriately, and also how parents and caregivers can arm their children to benefit from those relationships without exposing themselves and being, you know, vulnerable to the interest of a potential predator.

And let me just play a clip here. Phil, I'm going to go to you first on this because I just want to play a short clip from an interview that Jerry Sandusky, who is the accused in this case, who talked to New York Times reporter Jo Becker over the weekend, and here's a clip of the conversation. He admits - he denies molesting anybody, but he admits to showering with children and says he was just horsing around. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JO BECKER: You thought more like these kids are part of my family. Is that...

JERRY SANDUSKY: And, you know, some many of them would say that.

BECKER: But is that - and I'm trying to...

SANDUSKY: And, you know, yeah, and so I mean that was a mutual feeling, you know, a family-like feeling. It was, you know, almost an extended family. We were an extended family, an extended father.

MARTIN: So Phil, is there any red flag here that you could pick up on to help, you know, your child or other kids who in your care understand what to do or what not to do?

LERMAN: Oy Vey. You know, again, we had so much, we had so much experience with child molesters in "America's Most Wanted," and one of the first things so many of them do is try to insinuate themselves into the child's life in exactly the way that Mr. Sandusky was saying. I'm not saying he's guilty, I'm not saying he's innocent, I'm not implying anything, but that's a very early first step.

You know, one of the things we were talking about, how do you have these conversations with your kids? I talked to my son Max about Penn State and Syracuse and all of this, and the first thing we did - my wife and I – sort of gave him the opening to talk about it because we were chatting about it in front of him often so that - and his ears perked up. He said well, what did they do, dad? And I said, oh, you want to know what they did? Here, can I have some of your - very conversationally, let me take a bite of your ice cream here.

And, so remember I told you about private parts? Where are your private parts, Max? And that's your wiener. Yeah, that's right, Max. So listen so, you know, remember I told you if anybody ever touches you there then you have to tell daddy, right? Yeah, I know. So there are people, believe it or not, they're called child molesters and they like to touch children in their private parts, or they like to have children touch their private parts. Daddy, stop eating my ice cream. Get your own. I can't my own. I'm on a diet. What about when Pokemon...

And he went off to some other conversation and I let him go off to some other conversation, but it was in that very small little bit of talking back and forth in the way we talk about just about anything else, to let them know it's OK to chat it, OK to talk about this, it's not a big deal. You're allowed to talk to daddy about it. And we try to have those conversations not once, not twice but very frequently, you know, and have the big talk, you have a lot of little talks. And I think it's in those kinds of conversations that you can help your kids start to learn what you think are the boundaries of these are the moments that you have to alert me.

MARTIN: What about Malik's idea? His idea was that in part because he's also, he's worked with all age groups. He's worked with very, very little kids, with pre-K kids, up to young adults and with very little, little kids. One of the things that he says he does is let them initiate contact. So if a little kid wants to hug him he'll allow it but he doesn't sort of go out of his way to hug the child or, you know, put his hand on the child. What do you think about that idea?

LERMAN: I mean I think that that's a very good guideline. I think he hit right on the nose the question of how much sexuality there you're imposing on a situation when you're trying to be careful. Some of us are old enough to remember that when in the workplace a boss could say, you know, I didn't do anything inappropriate here. I just, you know, I just pinched my secretary on the butt and told her her breasts looked really nice in that bra. I don't see what's wrong with that. And when you think about how people today would react to that kind of behavior think, boy, we've come a long way in 40 years and were still trying to decide what is appropriate in the workplace. Is it appropriate to have a conversation with a female employee behind a closed door? Probably not. If your secretary gets her haircut and you say it's a good haircut then it's probably OK. We're still working on the guidelines.

I think right now we have just begun to have those kinds of conversations. What Malik is saying is a very good way to begin that conversation. I think we'll probably continue to have those conversations over the next 40 years - where are the boundaries. But having the conversation of what's appropriate and what's not, I think that's where this begins.

MARTIN: Bomani has an idea. Bomani has something he wants to add. And I'll just add one thing from my own experience. One of the things I do with my own children who, I have twins and they're eight, is I never make them touch anybody if they don't want to. For example, you know, it's common. People say oh, give grandma a hug, or all, give so-and-so a hug and say goodbye. I never make my children hug anybody. If somebody says, if they don't want to I say fine, you don't - and other people's kids as well. There are times when people will - there's a child who I may not have seen in a while and the parent might say oh, give Aunt Michel a hug. And I say, you know what? You don't have to. You never have to hug anybody that you don't want to. It's fine. It's your choice. And that's one thing that I instill in my kids and in other kids for that matter.

Bomani, you have something you wanted to add?

ARMAH: Well, yeah. I mean the only thing that I've seemed to have found out from everything that I did, as far as research and why pedophilia happens, why people get in these situations, is finding out that they're working with kids who don't feel they have someone they can tell when that happens to them. I mean Sandusky was dealing with the stereotypical at-risk youth. He was dealing with people who didn't have fathers in their lives. And I realize, and the way I ended the blog that I wrote was I realized the only thing I could do - 'cause I've already have the sexual body parts conversation.

I remember one time at a family reunion my sons were just learning their body parts and they pointed at their nose and the family was like nose. And they pointed at their arms and the family were like arms. They pointed at their penis in the family members was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDING SHOCK)

ARMAH: ...and I was like penis? And my son was like penis, you know, like you have to be able to call it what it is, especially in these situations because some of these other terms don't hold up in law. So anyway, they party had that conversation. But the conversation we hadn't had was son, no matter what someone tells you you can tell me about it and I will love you the same and I will protect you from it.

MARTIN: Well, what about you though as the guy who works with kids who are typically called at-risk?

ARMAH: And...

MARTIN: What about you as that guy?

ARMAH: And so what it does is it makes what you're most afraid of even more necessary. These kids need someone they can tell that. Like if the kid that I am talking to if that I'm working with this happens to him in some other setting, if he doesn't have a man that he feels he can go to to help him I don't know where he will go and I'm hoping I'm that man for him - that he can come to me and tell me about something like that.

MARTIN: We only have two minutes left so I'm going to give Phil the last word. Malik, you have any other questions for Phil, as kind of our trusted guide here?

WASHINGTON: Well, I think along the lines of trust, you know, any time you have these interactions with children and mentors, teachers, there's always we talk about how parents need to trust those individuals with their kids and how kids should trust those individuals. But there's also a burden of trust on us as mentors and teachers. And we need to trust the kids that we're working with. We need to trust the parents of the kids we're working with. And if we're in the setting of a school or an organization we also need to trust that, you know, we are supported - we have that support should there be any close calls or and sometimes false accusations.

MARTIN: Phil, final thought from you. I mean this is obviously a conversation - I'm sad that we have to have this conversation, but we are having this conversation and it's sadly, probably won't be the last time we have this conversation. But in the minute that we have left, any final words of wisdom from your long experience?

LERMAN: Well, I think Bomani had the words wisdom at the end of his blog, when he talked about make sure your children know there's nothing they can do that will make you stop loving them. Because and not just in at-risk families, in every family that we dealt with on the show over years and years, the most stable appearing families, it was always I can't believe she didn't tell me. And it was, the molesters always would say the same thing, your parents are going to be, they're not going to love you if they find out you did this, or I will hurt them if you tell them that I did this. And so letting them know there's nothing you can't tell me, there's nothing anybody could do to make me stop loving you is the most important message. And think that when Bomani said that I think that was right on the nose.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Phil Lerman is the author of the book "Daditude." He was co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted" for 15 years. He's also working on another special for them right now. He was with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio Bomani Armah. He is a poet and teacher. He was with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Malik Washington, who is our TELL ME MORE intern this semester. And he's also a longtime veteran mentor in the Washington, D.C. area. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for joining us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

ARMAH: Thank you.

LERMAN: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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