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A Chance to Tell Kids the Meaning of Standing Tall

October 26, 2003|Julie Hudash | Julie Hudash is a writer in Irvine.

"Mom, Kobe says he's just guilty of adultery," my son reported last summer when headlines of the Los Angeles Laker's troubles first surfaced.

"Hmmm ... great," I sighed, dreading the inevitable slam-dunk question from a second-grader who clearly viewed an adult being charged with adultery as logical. Sure enough, his next words were "What's adultery?"

"Why do we teach kids to read?" I muttered to myself.

With Kobe Bryant facing a felony sexual assault trial as the Lakers season begins, parents are reminded how difficult it is to steer youngsters toward appropriate role models. Bryant's clean-cut image had been difficult to resist. The fact that I have responded to other professional athletes' problems with "Kobe doesn't act like that" makes it even more difficult.

Bryant was like an awesome G-rated movie, inspiring and safe for the entire family. We'd bought the popcorn and settled in for the show only to be shocked when the rating plummeted from G to X.

Maybe jocks should include a warning along with their cola and athletic shoe endorsements: Caution: The surgeon general has determined that professional athletes could be hazardous to your child's psychological development. With Bryant, such a warning comes too late -- witness the Bryant posters hanging in our three sons' bedrooms. But the most damaging game plan for parents as the news coverage continues is to remain silent on the sideline.

The one lifesaver we can grab during the coming media storm is the opportunity to talk to children about adultery and sexual violence. Even with TVs silenced and headlines covered, students are talking about Bryant's case. Parents must brace for unexpected questions.

The courts will sort out what happened in that hotel room. But Bryant hasn't helped parents with his subsequent statements. "I'm disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery," he said after admitting to having sex with a 19-year old hotel worker.

Nonsense. A mistake is forgetting sugar in a cookie-dough recipe or locking the car keys in the trunk.

Having sex with someone while your spouse is at home caring for your infant daughter is more than a simple mistake. Infidelity is a selfish choice that inflicts pain on all surrounding parties. And when the wanderer is a role model, the pain sends ripples into countless homes.

Young people are developing their values at a time when society is drowning in images of irresponsible sexual behavior in print, television, lyrics and the Internet. Unfortunately, youngsters aren't being told of the very real and painful consequences. The Bryant trial will do that.

When Bryant's troubles surfaced, I serendipitously crossed paths with an amazing athlete. Staciana Stitts earned a gold medal swimmer at the Sydney Olympics and is a recent UC Berkeley graduate.

At age 12, Stitts developed alopecia areata, which caused all her hair to fall out. Although she's training for the 2004 Summer Games, she recently spent the morning with Irvine students, inspiring them to believe in themselves and not be overly concerned with their appearance.

"We all have things we'd change about ourselves," Stitts told her audience, "but you can't let those perceived faults get in the way of your dreams." When Stitts asked, "How many of you wish you could change something about yourself?" most girls and boys slowly raised their hands. "Would you want to be taller, skinnier or have different hair? Who would like to be 12 and totally bald?" I listened and watched, awed by her honesty and bravery.

Stitts' smile is that of a genuine champion. I can't help noticing the contrast between Stitts' desire to use her experience to inspire others and the monumental egos that thrive in professional sports.

The Bryant trial undoubtedly will continue to be heavily covered. Parents will face a full-court press by inquisitive youngsters. Our job is to quickly respond to their sharp questions by passing them age-relevant information. But those uncomfortable conversations can be as enlightening for parents as for their children.

Former basketball star Charles Barkley once said that professional athletes shouldn't be role models, but parents should be. So here, parents, is our chance to shine. This is the Kodak moment of teachable opportunities. Use it to interject values of integrity, self-control and commitment into the inevitable discussions Bryant's trial will spark.

You might even learn something. Nothing helps you understand your beliefs more than navigating them through those "out of bounds" conversations with an inquisitive child.

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